From cleaner air and water, stormwater mitigation, reduction in surface heat island effects, and carbon sequestration to improving health, trees offer plentiful benefits to communities. Locally, a new Washtenaw County Conservation District (WCCD)
initiative called the Community Trees Pilot Project
is considering how to maximize those benefits.
"We want to get people to understand how their local policies impact trees and forests, and help provide some examples of alternative policies that municipalities could consider adopting," says Summer Roberts, a community forester with the WCCD. "Land use in particular, with development, growth, and zoning regulations, is a primary concern. In Michigan, a lot of the land use decisions are left up to municipalities and executed at a local level, so we want people to have input."
The first seeds for the initiative were planted last November after the WCCD – which has been assisting Washtenaw County residents with conservation, management, and use of natural resources since 1948 – reviewed the results of the organization's most recent five-year resource assessment survey. Sent to residents countywide, the survey's purpose was to get a sense of people's most pressing concerns about natural resources and what the WCCD can do to help.
"The top concern turned out to be land use, specifically development, growth, and zoning regulations. Next was forests and woodlots. And then number three was water quality and average temperature," Roberts says. "That's a lot to think about, but we're hopeful that this pilot project will give us a way to address all of these questions and concerns that people have, and in the best way possible."
In order to fulfill such a tall order, the WCCD is working with residents and local officials in four municipalities: the rural communities of Bridgewater Township and Sharon Township, and the more urban and suburban communities of Ypsilanti Township and the city of Ypsilanti. Residents in these areas were asked to participate in an online survey about how trees can best serve them.
WCCD community forester Summer Roberts
Guided by the communities' concerns, the WCCD intends to review current ordinances and zoning policies. With the assistance of student contractors from the University of Michigan, the organization will use geographic information systems to get an understanding of the distribution of trees in the communities. They'll also be able to identify areas for potential strategic tree plantings and areas that require preservation efforts.
"We're working on a total ordinance review and looking through all of the documentation that these communities have on hand to determine community goals and determine if, and how, trees are prioritized," Roberts says. "We'll also make maps that will help us advise where additional trees should be planted based on residents' priorities."
At the moment, the survey results are still trickling in and being reviewed. However, Roberts has been busy setting the groundwork for the next stage of the project. She's been meeting with elected officials and staff from the four pilot municipalities in an effort to figure out how the WCCD can assist in any current efforts that are underway.
The city of Ypsilanti, Roberts points out, already has a sustainability plan
with many goals that need to be taken into account. Roberts' job will be to suss out how the WCCD can help the city meet the plan's goals. She'll also be rooting out anything the city should take another look at or consider bumping up in its timeline.
"We can be a second pair of eyes and help with whatever they want to accomplish," Roberts says. "It could be that help with finding partnerships and funding sources is what will be needed, or maybe education about the value of trees is what will be helpful."
Roberts hopes the pilot project will be a springboard to galvanize more grassroots community interest in how local policies impact trees. Like most conservation districts, the WCCD is given state-appropriated funds. However, in 2020, Washtenaw County residents voted to pass a millage
providing the organization with another funding source. For the Community Trees Pilot Project, millage funds were used to match Urban and Community Forestry Program grant funds from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
"It's only thanks to the millage that we've been really able to ramp up our services and programs for the first time ever, and this pilot program is just the start," Roberts says. "In the next few months we're hoping to get people excited and show them that trees can be incredible resources for Washtenaw County."
Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe.