What’s being done to replant Minneapolis?

The big, beautiful shade trees that have graced Minneapolis boulevards for decades are dying.

According to Ralph Sievert, head of the Park Board's forestry department, the root of the problem can be summed up in three words: Dutch elm disease.

Tree removal crews with industrial backhoes and tractor-trailor trucks are sweeping through entire neighborhoods with military-like efficiency, chopping down elms like so many weeds.

Over the summer, we lost three big boulevard shade trees on our block alone. You have to multiply those three trees by the thousands of blocks in Minneapolis to understand the scale of this loss.

"As of this date, 1,325 trees have been marked for removal," explained Sievert, who hastened to add, "and that's just on the boulevards."

While losing more than a thousand trees in one year is bad, it could be worse. He reminds us that during the first wave of Dutch Elm disease in the 1960s and '70s, Minneapolis lost up to 20,000 trees each year.

The loss of so many mature trees is changing the look and character of Southwest. The 2700 block of Hennepin Avenue, for example, has been devastated. With its shade trees gone, what was once a leafy (albeit busy) urban street now looks like a seedy stretch of East Lake Street. The buildings look uglier and more rundown. The sidewalk looks more cracked. The streetscape looks like a thoughtless collection of power poles, street signs and stoplights.

For shade trees, it turns out, not only provide shade, save energy, increase property values, filter our air and water and beautify our city more--they also cover up a host of visual sins.

The good news is that Minneapolis seems to be on top of the problem. "There's a plan for what type of tree should be replanted on which block," Sievert said. "It was developed in the 1980s after Dutch elm disease swept through, and it's been constantly refined."

The plan's goal, of course, is to avoid another monoculture that can be wiped out by a single disease. The plan includes planting a wide range of species, including familiar varieties such as American linden, red and sugar maple, and crabapple, as well as more exotic varieties such as bicolor oak, Kentucky coffee, Prairie gem pear and ginkgo.

But the sad reality is that shade trees take decades to mature. There is no instant gratification with these complex life forms, no magical growth hormone that will overnight transform a 2-inch sapling into a gracious, mature tree arching over the street to form the canopy of which every city dweller dreams.

All of which means that if we want shade trees in 20 to 30 years, we had better get planting today. Which begs the question: Is the long-term tree replanting program endangered by short-term budget cuts?

Not so far, according to Sievert, adding that the city planted 1,200 boulevard trees last year and another 3,500 this year. Because shade trees are so popular, his department can hit up outside funding sources like the Neighborhood Revitalization Program to pay for the trees themselves.

If there's a problem, it's one of personnel rather than financing, Sievert says. His department lost nine forester positions in this year's citywide belt-tightening. "These are the folks who work year-round, trimming trees in the winter, planting trees in the spring, and removing trees in the summer. We won't know until next year whether these personnel cuts are temporary or permanent."

He paused, then added, "Having fewer workers slows down how fast we can get new trees planted."

Nothing will ever replace the Dutch elms that Minneapolis has lost. But let's not allow short-term budget problems to affect the long-term beauty of our city.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects in Linden Hills. He can be reached at rgerloff@residentialarchitects.com.