Kansas City groups work to preserve the city's 'urban forest'

Saturday, February 11, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Like the Lorax in the Dr. Seuss story, Kevin Lapointe speaks for the trees. These days, he and others are screaming in their defense.

As Kansas City's official forester, part of the Department of Parks and Recreation, Lapointe knows that slowly, gradually, perhaps imperceptibly to most people, the public trees in Kansas City are disappearing.

Because of age or damage, "We're probably removing 3,000 trees a year in Kansas City," Lapointe, 51, said last week as he stood by a row of stumps at 62nd and Oak streets.

Because of budget cuts, with taxes going to other priorities, the city no longer has money to replace trees. The result, which Lapointe hopes to change, is that the city now counts 408,000 public trees, down from 415,000 in 2008. That was the last year the city replanted 3,000 trees at a cost of about $500,000.

Although Kansas City has long prided itself as a city of fountains, its trees have helped define its character as much as any other single feature; thousands line its boulevards and a vast number populates Swope Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country. A significant portion of Kansas City's history was crafted on the backs of men, such as lumber baron Robert A. Long, who knew the importance of trees.

Now, with a city budget of only about $25,000 to replace the trees that are continually being cut down, the prospect of seeing empty air where oaks, maples and ashes once towered has only grown.

Lapointe, though, now has a plan that will begin as a pilot program in April that should, as he said, "stop the leaking."

It comes at a time when others, including the Mid-America Regional Council, the environmental group Bridging the Gap and other municipalities, are looking at ways to sustain what they call the area's vital "urban forest."

"There are so many, many benefits of planting trees," said Tom Jacobs, the director of environmental programs for the Mid-America Regional Council. "When we think of what kind of community we want the Kansas City area to be in the future, we want one that is environmentally healthy and economically healthy and has a sense of community vitality.

"The urban forest is just integral to that whole concept. It adds to the real estate values. It adds to the quality of the environment. It makes the place better. It adds so much to life."

The council is in the final stages of editing a report not only to take inventory of public and privately owned trees in the nine-county Kansas City area (the figure is 250 million, a number heretofore unknown) but also to put a social and economic price tag on the benefits those trees provide.

Other area cities are also taking steps.

Just weeks ago, Bridging the Gap's Heartland Tree Alliance received a $5,000 grant from the national nonprofit American Forests to plant 2,000 trees this spring in the Kansas suburbs of Overland Park, Shawnee, Bonner Springs, Westwood and Lenexa. Harley-Davidson matched with $5,000 of its own.

Last year, the organization planted more than 1,800 trees in the area, more than they ever had before.

In January, the group also received a $7,000 grant from the J.E. Dunn Construction Co. to begin a regional "tree bank" to which people can donate money to buy trees .

In Kansas City, Lapointe's plan is simple.

In the past, the city paid $150 to $250 to buy a tree big enough to replace one that had to be removed. At that cost, a budget of $25,000 would barely replace 100 to 150 of the 3,000 trees removed each year.

Lapointe estimates that the city might actually lose 4,000 or more trees a year as the city does not always know when residents remove dead trees from the right-of-way strip in front of their homes.

Whatever the reality, replacing 150 or so trees annually would barely slow the thinning of the city's tree canopy.

Instead, Lapointe has created a partnership with the George O. White State Forest Nursery near Licking, Mo., to provide 500 free trees to the city. The trees — in about a dozen varieties, including redbuds, sycamores and six types of oaks — are smaller "three-gallon trees," only a couple of feet high, rather than taller and more mature trees with trunks 1.5 to 2 inches thick.

The catch is convincing residents to care for and perhaps even help plant them.

Younger trees need more watering, so Lapointe, using about $20,000, has contracted with the Heartland Tree Alliance to provide volunteers. The group also will go neighborhood to neighborhood to enlist homes associations to commit to plant trees and care for them.

"In so many cities right now, people want to donate or plant a tree," said Heartland Tree Alliance manager Noelle Morris. "The cities can't afford to do it one by one. This will at least give residents that opportunity.".

Lapointe and Morris said they plan to approach the Wornall Homestead Homes Association south of 63rd Street to be the first neighborhood. The West Plaza neighborhood close to State Line Road is also on the list to receive some of the first 500 trees.

"As a matter of fact, I'd welcome a replacement," said William Mitchell, 72, who has lived in the Wornall Homestead neighborhood for 41 years. Six years ago, he was forced to take down the aging Japanese pagoda tree that stood on the strip in front of his front lawn. The spot is now empty on an otherwise tree-lined street.

"The whole block at one time was planted with them," said Mitchell, who said he would happily help water and care for a young tree as long it wasn't the one variety he hates.

"No sweet gums," Mitchell said.

"No," Lapointe reassured him on a recent visit to the neighborhood, "that is the last thing we will plant."

If the 500-tree pilot program works, the idea is to expand it later in 2012 and plant as many 3,000 trees annually if residents and other homes associations agree to be stewards.

Although adding 3,000 small trees a year won't help the urban forest grow, the hope is that it will stem the losses.

"You can drive around places in the city where there are blocks where there are no trees," Lapointe said. "When people look at Kansas City, they have to remember that they have this great inheritance of an urban forest. We have to be responsible for what we inherited."

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