Dearborn works to preserve and grow its tree canopy

Dearborn is serious about its trees.

It’s one of the benefits of being one of the older communities in metro Detroit, a hearty and mature tree population.

And fortunately for the city and its trees, Dearborn recognizes the importance of a healthy and robust tree canopy.

"It’s good for the environment. It’s good for air quality. If you have a mature tree over 16 inches in diameter, it can suck up stormwater. They reduce the heat island effect. And property values increase with a healthy tree canopy," says David Norwood, sustainability coordinator for the city.

While Norwood makes preserving the tree population sound like a no-brainer, the city has also taken a pro-active approach to make sure that city trees stay firmly rooted in the ground.

In Dearborn, removing a tree without the city’s permission can net a person a $500 fine and even jail time. A misdemeanor with up to 93 days in jail can be sentenced for removing a tree without permission.

Like we said, Dearborn is serious about its trees.

"We are about 28 to 30 percent covered overall but we need to be at 40 percent," of tree coverage, Norwood says. There are parts of the city with great tree coverage but there are also "parts of the city with very little tree canopy, like the southeast and south end."

The city is working to preserve and grow its tree canopy in a variety of ways.

Dearborn requires property owners to obtain a permit before removing trees that are diseased, dying, or in the way of a construction project. And for illegally removing trees that are at least 4 feet tall and 16 inches in diameter? There’s that $500 fine and/or jail time we were talking about.

The city also invites its residents to report suspicious tree removal by calling city offices during the week and the non-emergency police number on weekends.

On the other side of the shovel is the city’s tree-planting program. Dearborn maintains a policy that for neighborhoods that lose trees due to public construction projects, the city will replant trees on every property – and for free, it’s built into the city budget. The policy even extends to those that didn’t have a tree on their property in the first place.

Dearborn also sells trees to and plants them for its residents. The deadline for purchasing trees from the city recently passed, but it’s an annual program and will almost surely return. This year’s trees cost $185 plus tax.

The city curates a selection of trees each year, considering factors like what type of tree would be best suited in a home’s easement, or what’s commonly referred to as the tree lawn.

"A lot of folks have street trees but some plant whatever they want on their property," Norwood says. "Trees like silver maples, the ones with the helicopter seeds, are not an ideal street tree. They drop branches. They grow over the street and garbage trucks hit them."

There’s a diverse batch of trees offered each year, chosen not only for their characteristics but so as to ensure a diversity of species, too. There were more than 15 trees offered in 2020; it’s a list that includes the Cleveland Pear tree, a White Flowering Dogwood, Ginkgo trees, and more.

It’s important for the city to diversify its tree population. One of the biggest threats to the tree canopy isn’t property owners illegally removing trees but rather a monoculture of species.

Mass die-offs occur when different diseases attack certain trees that were planted en masse, long before it was emphasized that a diversity of species was important. Die-offs also occur in groups when one kind of tree was planted throughout the city decades ago and they then reach the end of their natural lifecycles all at once.

"Our canopy needs work. We need to do more. But work is ongoing," Norwood says.

"I’m a big proponent of the idea that we can’t have enough trees."

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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.