Roanoke's Tree Canopy Has Fallen Over the Last Decade. City Leaders Are Now Trying To Restore It.

Roanoke's tree canopy coverage was at 26 percent in 2019, down from 48 percent at the beginning of the decade.

A group of volunteers from the city's Tree Stewards program, plant an American Hornbeam in 2022 in Roanoke's Old Southwest neighborhood. In the wake of the Great Recession budget cuts, volunteer organizations began to spring up in Roanoke, augmenting the work of parks and recreation by planting and maintaining trees. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROANOKE TREE STEWARDS

When the Great Recession tore through the nation, Roanoke slashed its Parks and Recreation Department budget.

Cuts were nothing new. According to Chris Bryant, who served on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for several years, funding for the department was never reliable.

“People would always say that whenever cuts were needed, the first place to get cut would be parks and recreation,” Bryant said.

Yet the budget cut — more than $1 million from parks and recreation, which included urban forestry activities — had a significant impact on the number of trees planted in Roanoke.

Most national forestry organizations recommend that, for areas of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River, tree canopy coverage should be 40 percent. In 2010, Roanoke was still holding strong at 48 percent, according to the city’s comprehensive plan.

“However, Roanoke’s tree planting budget was significantly reduced in 2008,” the plan states. “Since then, the City has relied on local groups and nonprofits to help with the City’s tree work. A 2019 study on tree canopy distribution revealed that Roanoke’s now has 26% tree canopy coverage.” The 2019 tree canopy study used a different methodology from the 2010 analysis and encouraged a fuller assessment of Roanoke's canopy.

A city’s tree canopy is one of the most essential tools it has to protect against heat. In the parts of Roanoke with the least tree coverage, like the Northwest part of the city, the temperature can be as much as 12 to 15 degrees hotter than others in the summer, according to an ongoing Virginia Tech study.

One of Roanoke’s stated goals in its comprehensive plan is to bring the city’s tree canopy back up to 40-percent coverage. To that end, the city has begun putting money back into parks and recreation with tree planting in mind.

Roanoke has earmarked $250,000 in federal pandemic relief funds specifically for tree planting. But rebuilding the canopy will take time.

City Manager Bob Cowell told members of City Council at an April meeting that city tree planting was approaching a level where it would outpace the number of trees dying off.

“We’re now getting closer to a one-to-one planting,” Cowell said. “It used to be three to four cut down for every one planted.”

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Last year, the city planted 225 trees, 65 of those in the Northwest part of Roanoke, according to Molly Hagan, a spokesperson for the parks and recreation department. But 283 trees were removed over that same time frame, according to a department pamphlet. A city spokesperson declined to make Roanoke’s urban forester, Bill West, available for an interview.

As Cowell explained to Council members, replacing dying trees with new ones won’t immediately increase canopy coverage, since mature trees cover greater ground. And while the city may be nearing its one-to-one planting goals, far more trees are being lost or cut down on private properties.

The city’s draft Climate Action Plan calls for a “community-supported, holistic tree planting plan to combat urban heat island effect that promotes tree planting, establishment, preservation, and short and long-term maintenance” as well as a new study to more precisely determine the city’s current tree canopy.

Bryant, who volunteers with the citizen-led group Trees Roanoke, said that more work needs to be done to protect existing trees — especially at sites slated for actual or potential development. That could impact projects such as planned townhomes along Brandon Avenue or any future development at the much-contested Evans Spring land, a 150-acre swath of woodlands in Northwest Roanoke.

“Construction companies have a tendency to clearcut a lot and then plant new trees once they finish,” Bryant said. “Those older trees are very important not just as a carbon store, but for the ways they help improve the soil.”

Bryant suggested that the city change its building codes to help protect existing trees, and to ensure enough trees are planted at new properties.

In the wake of the Great Recession budget cuts, volunteer organizations began to spring up in Roanoke, augmenting the work of parks and recreation by planting and maintaining trees. The largest of these, Trees Roanoke, was started in 2009.

Harry Van Guilder was one of the first people to join the nonprofit organization, along with his wife, Melanie Van Guilder. Van Guilder grew up in Upstate New York, one of the most heavily tree-covered parts of the U.S.

“We were looking for ways to give back, and approached parks and recreation to see if there was anywhere we could volunteer,” Van Guilder said. “That was in 2008, and parks and rec was still fully staffed. After the recession, they really started to need some help.”

When it started, Trees Roanoke had 25 volunteers. The organization has since grown to 62 regular volunteers.

However, Bryant, who serves as vice president for Trees Roanoke, said much more assistance is needed to get Roanoke to its goal of 40-percent tree canopy coverage.

“We can’t do it all,” Bryant said. “Community members who own properties, and have the means and ability to plant trees, should consider planting them wherever they can.”

An ongoing study from Virginia Tech researchers is exploring ways to combat heat islands in urban environments, with particular emphasis on planting trees.

Theodore Lim, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, has applied for a grant of $1 million to help address Roanoke’s “heat islands,” parts of the city that get substantially hotter than others. The grant would not only go toward planting trees, but education on the importance of urban tree canopies and public infrastructure, such as cooling centers, according to Eric Wiseman, associate professor at the Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and one of the professors involved in Lim’s study.

Beyond planting more trees, money from grant funding would be used to further study heat islands by partnering with entities like Roanoke City Public Schools, Wiseman said.

“One thing we hope to do is to put temperature sensors inside students' shoes at schools in Roanoke to measure heat differences inside homes as well as outside, especially in places like Northwest Roanoke,” he said. “Roanoke has unique environmental and demographic factors that make it ideal for a study like this. … It also already has a vibrant sustainability program, with several organizations and city officials willing to help us.”

In Roanoke, the parts of the city with the least trees also tend to be its poorest, where residents are less likely to have air conditioning in their homes. The 12 to 15 extra degrees of heat in places like Northwest Roanoke create massive electricity bills and huge public health concerns due to heat-related illness, according to Wiseman.

To help address Roanoke’s lack of tree coverage, Bryant has pushed to have the Roanoke City Council declare 2024 “The Year of the Tree,” and, in the process, take a more active role in encouraging people to plant trees, and educating residents on the importance of tree canopy coverage.

“Planting trees is one of the biggest things that we can do, together and individually, to help fight climate change,” Bryant said.

Clarification (7/3/23) — This story has been updated to reflect the fact that a 2019 and a 2010 tree canopy assessment cited in the city's comprehensive plan involved different methodologies in estimating the city's tree canopy. The headline has also been updated to reflect the uncertainty in precisely comparing Roanoke's tree canopy over time.

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