- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Reno, the first city in the state to earn a Tree City USA designation, is rapidly losing its trembling leaves to drought, pests and, in some cases, property owners who’ve lost interest in taking care of them.

While Reno has long been known in literature and local lore as the City of Trembling Leaves, it actually has less than half the urban tree canopy as its counterpart in the arid southern half of the state, Las Vegas.

And on publicly owned lands, Reno is losing trees at a rate of about 235 a year, according to an ongoing tree inventory project launched by the city. There’s no similar count of individual trees on private property available.

The predicament has prompted Reno City Councilwoman Naomi Duerr to begin pushing for a stronger tree preservation ordinance that would encourage property owners to maintain their trees, and in some cases, make it more difficult to cut down mature trees.

Duerr also wants the city to be more aggressive about holding existing development accountable for their original landscaping plans, some of which are decades old.

“The trees provide so many benefits to our community,” Duerr said. “There’s environmental benefits, cooling, they help property values. People like trees.”

In 2012, the Nevada Division of Forestry completed an urban tree canopy assessment in both the Truckee Meadows and the Las Vegas Valley in which the percentage of land covered by trees was evaluated.

According to the results, only 5.2 percent of Reno sits under tree canopy, compared to 12.9 percent of Las Vegas. The study also found that Reno’s urban canopy was smaller than many similarly situated Western cities.

The results were a surprise to many who are familiar with Reno’s longstanding tree culture.

“Just in the fact that in so much of Reno, you can pretty much guarantee every single yard has a minimum one tree and many times they have more than they should for the trees’ health,” said Wendy Hanson, an arborist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Hanson noted that Reno is home to large shade trees, where Las Vegas may have smaller shrub-like and ornamental trees.

Three decades ago, Reno became the first city in Nevada to earn a Tree City USA designation. The logo adorns street signs throughout the city.

Reno has continued to meet the Tree City USA requirements. The city budgets at least $2 per capita for urban forestry efforts and has a minimal tree protection ordinance.

Reno’s urban forester, Steve Churchillo, said the city’s 5.2 percent urban tree canopy isn’t bad considering the desert environment.

“We have to irrigate everything we have in order for it to survive,” he said.

In other words, trees don’t just grow in Reno. Take a look at olden day photos of the city, particularly of the University of Nevada, Reno campus, which is now a lush treescape.

Indeed, some portions of Reno have up to a 20 percent tree canopy. But on average, the canopy is small.

The canopy has a hard dollar economic value. Trees help prevent runoff into the city’s drainage system, trap carbon dioxide to clean the air and provide shade, which can reduce other irrigation costs.

The 2012 study valued the Truckee Meadows’ canopy at $42 million. That value would jump to $87 million if the canopy was increased to 20 percent.

Although that 20 percent goal was set back in 2012, Reno hasn’t been able to make much progress toward it.

The city must routinely cut down diseased or dead trees on public property - many of them on the space between the sidewalk and the street in the old southwest. In the past month, the city has taken out close to a dozen mature trees on Holcomb Avenue and Arlington because they couldn’t be saved.

The Western ash bark beetle has been wreaking havoc on the giant ash trees that line some of Reno’s streets, Churchillo said.

“It’s not economically or environmentally feasible to treat that with a pesticide,” Churchillo said. “It’s an epidemic we’ve been dealing with the last couple of years.”

The problem is the city has slashed its tree planting budget. That means the trees the city cuts down aren’t being replaced.

The city used to replace about 375 trees a year. Now it’s lucky if it can afford to replace 100 of them, Churchillo said.

When the city cuts down trees along the sidewalks, they offer the home or business owner a free replacement tree when the funds are available, he said. But that doesn’t always work either.

“It’s a big challenge, to put it bluntly, to get people to water those trees,” Churchillo said. “We can’t require people to water city trees. Some cities do, but it’s hard to enforce.”

In fact, only about 28 percent of Reno’s tree canopy is on public land. That means private home and business owners are key to preserving and increasing the city’s canopy.

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Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

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