Margret Hofmann. Credit: Jim Gober
She may have only served one two-year term on the Austin City Council, but Margret Hofmann’s influence on Austin has been felt long after her elected post in the 1970s. Hofmann, a German Jewish immigrant who survived the horrors of World War II, was a devoted grassroots peace advocate and also a staunch supporter of Austin’s historic trees. Her commitment to preserving Austin’s natural treasures not only earned her the nickname of “Tree Lady,” but also led to the creation of Austin’s first tree ordinance in the early 1980s and sowed the seeds for Austin’s Heritage Tree Ordinance, which was passed in 2010.
Hofmann’s fight for Austin’s trees in the 1970s revolved around recognizing trees for their value. Hofmann once told the Austin American-Statesman, “I’ve always been amazed that we pay so much attention and spend a great deal of money on old houses — historical buildings, often no more than 100 years old — whereas we don’t consider trees that are 400, 500, 600 years old of the same importance.” Hofmann encouraged Austinites to protect and recognize Austin’s historic trees and helped create a registry of 200 of the city’s oldest, biggest trees. In 1983, her efforts came to full fruition when Austin passed a progressive tree ordinance that would set the basis for protecting the trees for decades to come.
Unlike many other cities around the country, Austin’s tree ordinances don’t just protect the public trees, but they also protect trees on private property — most city tree ordinances only cover trees on city land. Austin’s ordinances outline a classification system for trees based on size and species, and generally, the larger a tree is, the more protection it is given. And, based on the economic and practical functions these trees provide to the city, the protection is warranted.
A COOLING EFFECT
A 2006 tree canopy analysis conducted by the city’s Watershed Protection Department revealed that approximately 32 percent of the city is shaded by trees. According to Leah Haynie, Austin’s Heat Island Program coordinator, trees can reduce summer temperatures through shading, by absorbing solar energy and through evapotranspiration. In addition, it’s estimated that Austin’s trees have the potential to store up to 100,000 tons of CO2 per year, which is why departments across Austin are focused on increasing and protecting the city’s urban forest.
“Trees are working for us. They are the hardest working and most efficient of all city workers,” says Michael Embesi, a City of Austin arborist. “They continually provide benefits with little to no investment. Trees don’t take time off for vacation, sick leave or require medical coverage.”