Trees Knoxville: Growing the Urban Canopy One Tree at a Time

Trees Knoxville, a local organization working to add to the city’s tree canopy for the last eight years, is committed to the expansion of Knoxville’s tree canopy. Why is that important? The reasons go far beyond the fact that humans like trees.

They add grace and beauty to our lives, but they also provide shade and emit water vapor cooling the surrounding area. That matters because urban heat islands can run from one to seven degrees warmer than surrounding areas both day and night. As global temperatures increase, every degree matters. Additionally, they remove pollutants from the air, soil, and water, reduce storm water runoff, help save energy, sequester carbon, and they have been shown to increase property values.

The city of Knoxville maintains a Tree Inventory and Management Plan and the master plan is currently experiencing an update. A Department of Urban Forestry (headed by Kasey Krouse) with the city, which includes the city’s arborist, works to address all things trees in the city, as does its Tree Board, but needs support. That’s where Trees Knoxville steps in to put boots (and trees) on the ground, which was the idea behind its founding by Tom Welborn and others. Other organizations like KUB, the State Department of Urban Forestry, TVA, Keep Knoxville Beautiful also coordinate with the two groups.

I recently met with Sophie Carter, Trees Knoxville Program Manager, and Dale Madden, Chair of the Board of Directors for Trees Knoxville (and co-owner of Earthadelic) to learn more about the need, their work, and their plans going forward. The organization, a 501 (c)(3) since March 2017 is currently searching for an Executive Director, which would bring their number of paid employees to two to go with the volunteers who make up the core of the program. The group gets support from the City of Knoxville, from grants, and from contracts such as the one with several Knox County Schools, through their Canopies for Campuses program.

Dale Madden Accepts a Recent Award for Trees Knoxville (Photo from Trees Knoxville FB Page)

Trees Knoxville hosts events centered around trees, as well as providing education about trees. They train volunteer urban foresters, run tree planting programs, work with landscaping crews and anyone else interested in proper tree selection, placement, and maintenance. They take the goals of the city Forestry Department and put them into action. Dale mentioned their work with Centro Hispano working with the many Hispanic community members who work in landscaping, “teaching them proper tree-pruning practices, tree planting processes and more. We can create our own initiatives that don’t have to go through council for approval.”

Sophie said, “We’ve just wrapped up our Urban Forester program. It’s a twelve-hour session every Wednesday for four weeks. The first night we’ll . . . learn how to properly plant a tree (they are fifteen feet tall). The next class focuses on pruning and proper maintenance, the art and science of pruning.” The third class focuses on the importance of trees. They learn soil science, invasive species, both how to identify them and how to remove them, disease, and pest management.

The classes operate on the assumption that those who take them will then become knowledgeable volunteers helping do the work. Sophie added, “Those are the ones that come to the planning events . . . They take the lead for other volunteers who may not have taken the class.” Dale added, “These are the green shirts that are out at planting events that lead these planting groups.” They are also available to meet with environmental groups or serve as a speaker for an interested organization.

Tree Planting at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens (Photo from Trees Knoxville Website)

When you see landscape plantings driven by the city, you are likely to see some portion of that which Trees Knoxville added. Dale said, “For example, if the city wants to plant seven hundred trees in their planting season, we’ll do one hundred of those.” It helps offset labor and expenses for the city. Of the stress on the city department, Sophie explained, “They are on a five-year pruning cycle . . . Their crew doesn’t have the time to plant the trees, so they contract out the planting . . . All the trees go on their maintenance schedule.” At a pace of 700 trees per year, however, the city is only keeping pace with the loss of trees that die or are removed.” Trees Knoxville plants about 200 a year.

Much of the tree canopy loss is on private property, so the group wants to get the word out regarding the importance of trees, to prevent tree loss on private property. They do tree giveaways to the public each year, to encourage plantings on private property. The tree giveaways they offer twice a year prove to be very popular. “We’ll announce we’re giving away five hundred trees, and our parking lot fills up and the trees are gone in twenty minutes,” Dale said, adding they are looking at ways to add accountability to the giveaways to make sure the trees are being planted and cared for properly.

In the past around Knoxville, trees were often not planted properly, for example being planted where they would outgrow the space and become problematic. With the improved practices, the hope is trees will experience a higher survival rate and require less intervention, with less loss. That might open the possibility that we can plant more than we lose and so improve our situation over time. They hope the new management plan will help further that goal.

A canopy study was completed for the city in 2018, using advanced techniques, such as satellite imaging, to determine the state of the canopy cover, which would allow for accurate tracking over time. The study found that about 732 acres of canopy coverage had been lost over the previous ten years. The amount of coverage dropped from about 40%, to about 38% now. For comparison, Dale offered that Atlanta, which I tend to think of as all concrete surfaces, has about “forty-seven percent. With far more mature trees.” Trees Atlanta has about an eleven-million-dollar budget and has been in place much longer, which may account for some of the differences. The local goal is to get back to 40% by 2040.

Asked what local policy changes might help us more rapidly improve our canopy cover, Dale said, “Accountability.” He pointed out that developers in some cities are monitored to make sure they’ve kept required trees and cared for them. If the trees die or are removed, the city requires them to be replaced. Knoxville doesn’t have the accountability mechanism in place. “The masterplan is also looking at policies.”

Tree equity is also an issue. For example, low-income areas of town often have less canopy coverage. In Knoxville, Dale said, “There are many examples of high canopy coverage in low-income, but there are many areas, however, there are low canopy coverage areas there. In every wealthy community, there is always high canopy coverage.”

Carex Design Group Planting Trees (Photo Trees Knoxville Website)

The new plan has been in production for a year. They gathered a large advisory group and held around fifty community meetings. produced a survey that got around 500 responses. The information gathered there is being paired with data gathered to produce the new plan. They pulled in an outside consulting group. Urban Canopy Works, out of Cincinnati, to guide the conversation, asking the right questions. That group is tasked with producing the summary report and plan. “It’s a matter of what do we have, what do we want, and how do we get there?”

The plan should be produced early in the coming year, with a public report in early February. In the meantime, the group is always open to volunteers or (tax deductible) donations. They are a participant in the Big Give project in Knoxville set for the upcoming Giving Tuesday in which visitors to that website can donate to the local non-profit of their choice.