By Linden Lampman Mead, editor

For urban foresters, the end of the field season often means the beginning of budget season. Ideally, a management plan based on a recent inventory will help you determine planting and maintenance tasks. Whether planning for trees in new projects, replacing trees lost through removals, or getting new shade into parks, it is important to be realistic about not only the cost of purchasing and planting trees, but also growing trees. It is not realistic to plant a tree, give it a pat on its leafy head, then sit back and rake in the benefits that trees provide, without providing follow-up care. After all, they are expected to establish and into what is often a very harsh environment.

Thoughtful planning leads to a sustainable community forest resource.

The cost of planting and establishing trees should realistically be spread out over the course of a decade. Why ten years? Following planting, a tree needs to be watered in order to re-grow a root system disrupted by transplanting. Stakes need to be removed, mulch maintained, and trees pruned.

In order to live compatibly on a site with competing uses (pedestrians, traffic, signs, etc.), a tree requires good structural pruning for the first ten years of its life. Structural pruning accomplished during the first decade is said to alleviate up to 85 percent of the ‘problems’ associated with large, mature trees — problems can include low branches that hang over roadways and sidewalks or block signs.

While ten years seems a long time, think in tree time! A well-maintained tree will live, thrive, and provide benefits for 60 years or more.

So what is realistic budgeting? Taking into account local costs for resources, remember to estimate:

  • Cost of tree and delivery
  • Equipment, materials, crew time for planting
  • Crew time, equipment, and materials cost for stake removal and refreshing mulch
  • Crew time, equipment, water costs for irrigation
  • Crew time and equipment for structural pruning

The Western Washington and Oregon Community Tree Guide: Benefits, Costs and Strategic Planting, published in 2002 by the US Forest Service, Center for Urban Forest Research, Pacific Southwest Research Station, reports the average cost of tree care including planting, pruning, pest and disease control, irrigation, and other costs averaged about $50 annually per tree for a large tree.

The report goes on to say that the annual average benefits for a large tree are around $70 per tree. Benefits include reduced storm water run-off, cleaner air, cooler cities and homes, increased property values, etc. In other words, the benefits trees provide are greater than the costs of tree planting and management. For every dollar spent on tree planting, care, and management, a community receives net benefits. Trees pay us back.

If budgeting cannot realistically provide for the cost of planting and follow-up maintenance, it may be better to spend limited resources on managing existing community trees. That is a hard decision to make, especially if planting trees becomes a priority due to community environmental initiatives. But healthy, well-cared for trees will provide all the expected benefits that a sick or dying tree cannot. That is an important message to communicate to citizens and budgetary decision-makers.

This fall, while you sharpen your pencil and begin your figuring, sharpen your knowledge base with these resources:

Western Washington and Oregon Community Tree Guide: Benefits, Costs and Strategic Planning (also available in hard-copy)

Tree Guidelines for Inland Empire Communities

Trees Pay Us Back in the Inland Empire Region

Trees Pay Us Back in the Pacific Northwest Region

The Large Tree Argument