by CHRIS ROGERS
For years, the city of Winona has been removing more trees than it plants in boulevards and parks across town. The city recently won grants that will narrow that gap over the next three years. In the longer term, the city faces financial hurdles to replacing as many trees as it takes out.
Winona Forester Chris Kramer said the city removes on average 250-300 trees a year, while planting around 125. “Obviously, it’s not a good thing,” Kramer said. “I think in my time here our tree population is probably younger than when I started, so yeah, that would mean the canopy is being reduced.”
Emerald ash borer (EAB) — which has killed off local ash trees en masse over the last several years — contributed to that trend by greatly increasing the numbers of trees the city has to remove, though the city ramped up its tree planting efforts in response, Kramer said.
Still, Winona is slowly losing trees.
“One of the things the cutting of the ash treatment budget on the city level is, it has increased a discussion in regard to trees being planted,” Friends of Winona Parks organizer Howard Kruger said, referring to a decision to cut the roughly $80,000 the city was spending on treating ash trees to prevent them from dying from EAB infestations. The Friends of Winona Parks have been fundraising to treat prominent ash trees and plant new tree species. “The city has indicated, whether they follow through or not, a desire to up their budget for the trees they plant,” Kruger said.
Kramer and Winona Natural Resources Sustainability Coordinator John Howard said getting to an equilibrium or even planting more trees than are removed is a goal for the city. City Council member Pam Eyden has advocated for increasing the city’s tree planting efforts, and the city’s draft sustainability plan calls for a one-to-one removal-to-planting ratio.
“There’s only one way to get back to where we were: plant more than we remove,” Kramer said.
Getting to and maintaining that level of tree planting may be a challenge for the city.
In 2020, the city budgeted $8,000 for tree planting. In next year’s budget, city leaders cut the city’s investment of local tax dollars in tree planting to zero, but Howard won a pair of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) grants totaling nearly $50,000 to support tree planting in the city for the next three years. Howard said the goal is to plant 325 trees in 2022, and around 150 trees each year in 2023 and 2024. That may help Winona plant more trees than it removes in 2022, while 2023 and 2024 will be closer to the status quo.
In future years, grant funding alone may not get Winona to its goal, Howard said. For starters, he explained, “My feeling is competition for these grants is really going to increase as more places in Minnesota start feeling the ash borer.” The DNR grants are designed to help cities recover from EAB, and while Southeast Minnesota was one of the first places EAB arrived, more and more cities are likely to be in the same position Winona is in now. “A lot of communities are starting to see more trees going down and wanting to plant more trees, and I could see the DNR favoring those places that haven’t gotten grants over places that have,” Howard said.
Secondly, while the DNR funded grant applications that matched DNR dollars with city staff time to do the planting, the agency rejected a grant application from the city proposing to pay contractors to do the planting, Howard noted. A DNR official said that was simply because of the number of grant applications seeking limited funds, not the city's proposed use of contractors versus city staff. Regardless, city staff time is a limiting factor in how much planting the city can get done, Howard explained. With a relatively small tree crew also juggling the urgent needs of tree maintenance and removal, there’s only so much planting the city can do in the spring and fall. “That keeps us from being able to do a whole lot more than 150 [trees] a year,” Howard explained.
Faced with a difficult financial position next year, city leaders plan to eliminate one vacant position from the tree crew — the city employees who remove and plant trees — which will likely exacerbate the issue of limited staff time.
Kruger encouraged the city to prioritize planting going forward. “For every one tree they remove, they should be planting three because you’re going to lose some.” He suggested a city program to incentivize landowners to plant trees and care for them. “A tree soaks up so much carbon dioxide and helps out in that grand effort to stop global warming. It’s silly that we’re not putting in more trees than we are,” he said.
Kramer praised the work of Friends of Winona Parks. The group planted 12 large trees so far this year and treated 120 against EAB. It aims to plant 20-25 next year. “I can’t say enough good things about them, honestly. They’ve done a lot,” Kramer said. “We just don’t have time. We don’t have money. So they were able to get the trees fully planted on their own.”
To request the city plant a tree in the boulevard or to ask questions about boulevard trees, may contact the city at EAB@ci.winona.mn.us. Additionally, a boulevard-tree-planting request form is available at www.cityofwinona.com/formcenter/public-works-15/boulevard-tree-planting-request-156.
Landowners may plant trees on their own boulevards, as well. The city asks landowners to call the city tree crew at 507-457-8281 to find out what species of tree will suit the location and call Gopher State One-Call at 800-252-1166 to locate underground utilities.
For more information on Friends of Winona Parks, visit www.facebook.com/FriendsofWinonaParks.