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The Desert Dilemma

April 4th, 2018|Categories: Blog, Cities|Tags: , |

By Eliza Kretzmann, Urban Forest Programs Manager

Arriving at the North Mountain Visitor Center in Phoenix at dawn, the desert is alive. Jackrabbits hop through crunchy shrubs, quail bobble along and a nearby grove of desert trees hosts a family of “javalinas,” or wild boars. Muted colors of sand and rock give way to a vibrant, living ecosystem that can be easy to miss.

Over centuries, desert flora and fauna have created a delicate interdependency. Desert plants, all similar to an untrained eye, host different species of animals and insects. For example, Gila woodpeckers nest high in the protective shell of the iconic saguaro cactus, and the desert ironwood tree helps support the survival of over 500 plants and animals in the Sonoran Desert.

In cities, native plants are more important to urban wildlife than most people realize. A lesser long-nosed bat may search for nectar in the night blooms of a saguaro just paces away from a busy highway, or a roadrunner may race from a fast food restaurant parking lot to the cover of a brittle bush. Such is life in the urban desert.

Native plants and trees are also crucially important to the human inhabitants of a city like Phoenix. Heat is the number one weather-related cause of death in the U.S., and trees are one way to bring temperatures down. In a city where summer days can reach over 120 degrees, cooling Phoenix is paramount.

In February 2018, we were in Phoenix to plant trees with volunteers from the annual GreenBiz Conference, along with local hosts from the Phoenix Department of Parks and Recreation and the Arizona Sustainability Alliance.

It was a balmy, 80-degree day. One attendee excitedly headed for the pickaxe to break up the compacted desert soil, while others learned the art of “cactus wrangling,” or using a piece of hose to hold and carry a saguaro during planting. Together with local partners, we planted over 70 desert-appropriate shrubs, trees, cacti and forbs.

Despite the importance of the species we planted — the benefits to wildlife and people — and the success of our event, planting trees in desert cities is not always straightforward. Questions arise, such as: How will this plant be watered during drought restrictions? Will this tree become another martyr to cut budgets and busy schedules? What types of plantings are appropriate, or even responsible?

I’ve grappled with these questions for a long time.

I grew up in the high desert of Santa Fe, N.M. In my hometown and the nearby, sprawling city of Albuquerque, the terrain presents challenges for urban foresters and city parks. This year’s planting may become next year’s budget cut when an emergency ordinance disables the ability to water any trees, or a school system deems landscaping as “non-essential” for education and cuts all water budgets. Furthermore, the historic, native habitat of these cities featured more grasslands than trees in many areas.

But cities have sprung here. Residents of underserved communities wait for the bus in unshaded streets that only grow hotter. Trees are important in environments like these, especially for the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, children and people experiencing homelessness.

In my experience, there are several solutions and approaches to this conundrum. One is simply weighing the costs and benefits of new tree plantings. For example, American Forests, along with Bank of America, funded the planting of nearly 100 trees at a popular Tempe waterfront park where shade for the public is a necessity. Trees became part of the landscape in an area already watered by the city. In this case, the importance of the greenspace to the community and the dangers of extreme heat outweighed the negative aspect of watering those trees.

We also work with local partners to ensure a selection of site-appropriate species that require little water and have a good chance of thriving in the harsh environment. In the more technical realm, new and increasingly less expensive technologies continue to emerge that help trees survive in harsh desert environments spanning from the American Southwest to the African plains.

As a long-time desert dweller, I think urban trees are a precious resource that need careful planting, care and protection. Trees are important for the health and quality of life of people in desert cities. As long as the appropriate species are planted in a strategic location, trees can thrive in desert cities.

Even the “wrong” tree can still make an impact and stir the imagination. I remember a lovely neighborhood park that had a favorite giant sequoia — yes, in Santa Fe! — in that I climbed throughout my youth. It was so tall I would perch above the city line and sway in the upper branches above the glinting buildings below. Trees are not just a structural provider of ecosystem and community benefits — they can also be magical.

As western cities continue to heat up to dangerous temperatures, American Forests will continue to thoughtfully plant in desert communities to help cities reach their goals. After all, trees will provide resilience for increasingly-hot cities and desert dwellers alike for decades to come.

And perhaps a bit of magic, too.

A special thanks to our Phoenix and Tempe partners and sponsors: GreenBiz, The Phoenix Department of Parks and Recreation, The Arizona Sustainability Alliance, The City of Tempe, Bank of America and Clif Bar. We couldn’t do it without you!

April 4th, 2018|Categories: Blog, Cities|Tags: , |