City Hall slow to replace lost trees, backlog growing

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Five stumps.

That’s all that’s left of the ash trees that towered over the parkway, shading the corner house on Chicago’s Northwest Side where Richard Pietrusiewicz and his family have lived for 23 years.

A pest — the emerald ash borer — had infected the trees. So Pietrusiewicz wasn’t surprised when a forestry crew from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation showed up a few weeks ago and chopped down all of his trees.

They’re among the 28,076 trees — ash, maple and other species — that have been removed from residential parkways and other city-owned property between January 2011 and this past March, either by city crews or by contractors with the city’s permission.

It’s anyone’s guess, though, when the city will replace the lost parkway trees. Budget cuts have left thousands of Chicagoans waiting as long as four years for a new parkway tree. The backlog for replacement trees dates to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s time in office and has grown under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“They haven’t had any money for trees,” says Pietrusiewicz, a school bus driver. “I’m not happy about it. We all like a little shade. It would be nice if they put them back.

“The neighbors are already commenting: ‘My house is going to be hotter.’ ”

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Over the past three years, Chicago has seen a net loss of 15,511 trees from parkways and other city-owned property, according to data from City Hall.

The loss has been greatest in Edison Park, Portage Park and other Northwest Side neighborhoods. But it also has dramatically affected other communities across the city, from West Ridge to West Pullman.

Two weeks after City Hall, acting in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, provided the Chicago Sun-Times with data on tree removals and plantings, Emanuel announced the city will plant 5,400 trees this year — including 2,800 for parkways — about 30 percent more than were planted last year on city property last year by the city, the state and  private organizations.

City forestry records show:

• Chicago’s tree-removal efforts have sped up in recent months, with an average of about 57 trees a day coming down between November and March 14. City forestry crews felled 7,546 trees in that five-month period — about 27 percent of all the trees cut down since 2011.

• Northwest Side communities have been hit the hardest since 2011. Edison Park saw the greatest loss of trees: 260 trees per square mile. Sixty-six community areas saw a net loss of trees, while 11 have seen increases, including the Lower West Side, the Near West Side, the Near North Side, South Chicago, the Near South Side and the Loop.

• Though ash trees have been severely hit by the emerald ash borer infestation, ash trees rank behind maples for the most trees chopped down. City foresters felled or approved the removal of 7,832 maples, 7,019 ash trees and 2,138 elms. City records didn’t identify the species of more than 3,600 trees chopped down from city-owned land.

• Over the past three years, City Hall has paid Seven D Construction $2 million to buy, deliver and plant trees and also has paid a total of $2.6 million to several other landscaping companies to do so. It’s also paid O’Wallace Landscaping more than $1.2 million to grind away stumps from felled trees.

• The 12,565 trees planted in parkways and on other city-owned property between 2011 and 2013 includes 577 trees paid for by the “aldermanic menu funds” of 14 aldermen. It also includes 893 trees planted by the Illinois Department of Transportation, 887 trees planted by citizens or private organizations such as the Old Town Triangle Assocation and 52 trees planted by the conservation group Openlands.

Chicago’s dramatic loss of trees on city land worries Gerald Adelman, the president of Openlands. The group has a $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to plant 5,000 trees in the city by the end of 2015.

“Since 2010, the city has planted few trees,” Adelman says. “The impact of the fiscal downturn and other issues the city was facing, they cut the forestry budget. Most everything has gone into tree removal because of this crisis” with the emerald ash borer threatening Chicago’s 400,000 ash trees, including an estimated 85,000 lining the parkways.

“Our focus will be exclusively on public lands, parks, parkways, schools,” he says. “We’re trying to target ‘heat islands.’ Everything is coordinated with the city. We want to make sure there is diversity” of tree species planted so any future infestations wouldn’t do so much harm as the emerald ash borer.

John Lough, a senior forester for the city, says his crews spent last year inoculating about 37,000 of the 70,000 ash trees, hoping to save them from the emerald ash borer. They plan to inoculate the remaining trees this year, a process that must be repeated every three years.

“Our focus has been to maintain the canopy, maintaining our mature trees,” says Lough.

But this year, Anne Sheahan, chief of staff for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, says her tree-planting budget has doubled to $1.2 million this year, so she can try to whittle down the list of 5,000 people who have put in requests for parkway trees dating as far back as 2010. She says the agency also has begun targeting blocks and neighborhoods that have seen a dramatic loss of trees, starting on the Northwest Side.

“Those blocks that have lost a number of trees . . . will be a priority for us,” Sheahan says.

City officials say they’ve planted 500 trees so far this spring.

Compared to other cities across the nation, Adelman says Chicago has a “very low” percentage of tree canopy, with trees shading only 17 percent of the city in 2008, a figure he suspects has fallen along with the thousands of trees.

“These trees provide incredible economic value, cooling our area, reducing pollution, aesthetics,” Adelman says. “In an urban setting, your biggest connection to nature is a tree. These trees play so many roles. They provide so many habitats for birds, squirrels. If you have a nice tree canopy around your house, your property is worth more.”

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