To save Chicago trees, get forestry advisory board in place

An effective advisory board could ensure all departments of the city use best practices to protect Chicago’s tree canopy. It also could give residents confidence the city will explore every alternative when considering whether a tree needs to come down.

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Trees removed on the Southwest Side in 2017.

Openlands photo

Preserving mature trees is more important than ever. In an era of climate change, Chicago needs to make it an absolute priority.

On Paulina Street in the West Lake View neighborhood, where the city is planning to cut down 29 mature trees to clear the way for replacing old water mains, some residents argue the Department of Water Management is not doing enough to save the trees. They also say the water department, which originally was going to cut down 40 trees, has not done a good enough job of keeping residents up to date on what is happening.

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It’s a complaint that’s been echoed elsewhere and that will be heard in neighborhoods throughout the city as infrastructure replacement projects proceed.

In Andersonville, residents say they got little warning last year before the city started hacking shady trees into stumps. They thought they had an agreement the city would try alternative approaches before getting out the chainsaws.

But after putting liners in old pipes instead of replacing them, a process called cured-in-place piping, the water department said the experiment had failed because cracks were found in three of 12 test liners. Distraught residents said the trees came down before other alternatives could be explored.

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On Dec. 2, a sign hangs onto one of many trees that line North Paulina Street between West Roscoe Street and West Belmont Avenue that warns that this tree might be cut down during water main work.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Conservationists and neighborhood residents point to the successful use in other cities of cured-in-place piping and pipe bursting, in which a bursting tool enlarges an old pipe sufficiently to pull through a new one. Among the cities they say have used those alternatives are Minneapolis, Toronto and Detroit, and such suburbs as Waukegan, Evanston, Naperville, Arlington Heights and Orland Park.

“The things that they said are impossible are being done all over the place in big cities,” said Caroline Teichner, one of the residents hoping to save the Paulina Street trees.

A spokeswoman for the water department has said the city always looks for options to save trees.

The situation on Paulina underscores the need to get the city’s Urban Forestry Advisory Board up and running. The City Council approved its creation last June, but it is has yet to get off the ground. An effective advisory board could ensure all departments of the city use best practices to protect Chicago’s tree canopy. It also could give residents confidence that the city will explore every alternative when considering whether a tree needs to come down.

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. Trees capture carbon dioxide instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere to warm the planet. They cool areas that otherwise would be unhealthy heat islands. They help people with respiratory problems by filtering air and reduce flooding and water pollution by soaking up storm water. Wildlife, including migrating birds, use them as habitat.

From 2001 to 2020, the world lost enough trees to cover about half the United States, according to Global Forest Watch. Chicago lost an average of 10,000 more trees from 2010 to 2020 than it planted each year. No city can afford to lose mature trees unnecessarily.

Replacing water mains is no picnic. Other utility lines snake around underground. For fear of contamination, water lines can’t be too close to sewer lines, which might leak.

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No one is arguing the water line on Paulina shouldn’t be replaced. It has a significant break history, and clean water is important for every Chicagoan. Ald. Matt Martin, whose 47th Ward includes the stretch of Paulina where residents are trying to save the trees, said the focus now is checking whether it is feasible to get a variance from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency that would allow the city to safely lay a new water main closer to the existing sewer line, which would leave room for the trees to stay.

In its most recent budget, the city set aside money to plant 75,000 new trees over five years, which is an important step forward.

But the planting of new trees, which take decades to grow to full size, should not be offset by the destruction of healthy mature trees.Getting the Urban Forestry Advisory Board up and running quickly can help the city save its trees.

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