There is something calming about walking down a sidewalk of a tree-lined street. No matter the season, trees always have something visual to offer—greenery, a whole palette of color, stark black branches against a steel gray sky—and a stately presence that can take us outside ourselves.
Mt. Lebanon has about 11,000 street trees and about 10,000 more in our parks. We are planning to spend $371,860 this year on taking care of them. We are marking Arbor Day next month with a celebration at Howe School, as part of our status as a Tree City USA. Pretty clearly, we like trees around here.
“About 60 percent of [public works] service requests are about trees,” says Public Works Superintendent Rudy Sukal, who is himself an arborist with a degree from Penn State.
Mt. Lebanon’s three-man forestry crew is responsible for the planting and maintenance of all municipal trees. The crew trims about 300 trees a year, removes diseased and dying trees as needed, and plants new ones in their place.
Although the crew’s primary focus is forestry, that’s not all they do. They also are required to work on other public works projects, such as ice and snow control or leaf pickup, which is why some of those service requests can take a while. In addition to the foresters on the payroll, Mt. Lebanon spends $30,000 on seasonal contractors to trim trees that require pruning during the dormant season, freeing up the crew to work on the backlog of requests, some of which can take more than a year for a response.
“The backlog is a moving target,” says Sukal. “Sometimes a single request can involve working on three or four trees and can take the crew a couple of days to complete. Smaller jobs, they can clear up a few of those in a day.”
Storms and other bad weather can wreak havoc on the list as well. The very destructive “microburst” storm that passed over the area back in September 2010 added tasks to the workload that the crew was still catching up with last summer.
“Some of the damages can be delayed,” Sukal says. “A tree can take a hit from a storm today that causes a problem that we won’t see for six months.”
The public works department requested a couple of service levels in the 2015 budget that didn’t make the final cut: additional staffing for maintenance of trees along the park trails ($142,400) and maintenance of 500 street and park trees ($234,170). Both of the requests would have required hiring additional forestry crew.
“We do the best we can to maintain the trees in the parks,” says Sukal, “but our main focus has to be the street trees. That’s where there’s the most potential liability, the most potential for risk.”
Also figured into the current forestry budget is $28,000 to continue treating Mt. Lebanon’s ash trees with a vaccine called Tree-age that will protect against the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive wood boring beetle that destroys ash trees by feeding on the tissues under their bark. We once had about 1,000 ash trees; about 300 have already succumbed to the disease, Sukal says. Injected under pressure into the trees’ trunks, the vaccine will protect healthy trees from the Ash Borer for two years; then they will need to be re-inoculated. Of the 538 ashes vaccinated in 2012, 493 survived into 2014, better than 90 percent.
While vaccinating trees may at first sound dubioius, consider this: Trees destroyed by the Ash Borer have to be taken down and disposed of to prevent the spread of the disease at a cost of about $750 to $1,000 per tree, not to mention the cost of replacing them and the time involved in waiting for the new trees to mature. This year, $30,000 is budgeted to to remove ash trees that are too diseased to save.
Mt. Lebanon purchases trees in bulk and keeps them at the tree nursery at the public works facility on Cedar Boulevard. If a municipal tree in front of your house dies on the tree lawn or, if you have no sidewalk, in the 10-foot right-of-way from the sidewalk, the municipality will replace it for free. If you do not have a tree in front of your house, you may purchase one and have it planted for a total cost of $155. To request a tree, leave a voicemail at 412-343-3403. The forestry crew will determine the most suitable spot and type of tree for your location, taking into consideration factors such as proximity to utility wires, possibility of obscuring the view for drivers and pedestrians, and the possibility of roots damaging sidewalks or underground pipes. The crew also considers environmental factors, such as resistance to road salt, and the area’s soil and weather conditions.
Although Mt. Lebanon streets were once lined with stately sycamores and elms, today you’re more likely to get a tree that will top out beneath the power lines and not eventually be deformed by utility company pruning. It is not easy—in fact perhaps impossible to find the “perfect” street tree—an attractive, not-too-tall tree that can survive environmental challenges such as road salt and disease and is suited to our area’s soil and weather conditions.
Mt. Lebanon only plants trees in the fall, when the weather is cooler, the tree doesn’t need as much watering and the soil is still warm enough to allow some growth before the tree becomes dormant in the winter. Over the past four years, Mt. Lebanon has planted 970 trees. If you have a young street tree near your and can remember to water it in dry conditions, it will have a better chance of a long life.
If you notice a municipal tree that needs attention, call 412-343-3403 to initiate a service request. For emergencies such as fallen trees or limbs blocking streets or sidewalks, call 911. If a tree limbs falls on electrical lines, please reported it to Duquesne Light Company, 412-393-7000.
Some residents would like to see more variety in the canopy of municipal trees, and no one disagrees that it’s a good idea in theory.
Considering the costs and challenges involved with municipal trees, however, if you want a very tall, very delicate or very labor intensive species, your best bet is to plant it in your yard.
Mt. Lebanon is a Tree City USA, which means we meet the specific criteria set by the Arbor Day Foundation. Tree cities must have: a tree board or department, a tree care ordinance, a community forestry program with an annual budget of at least $2 per capita—this year we’re spending $11.22—and an annual Arbor Day observance or proclamation. This year’s Tree City USA festivities will take place at Howe School at 2:30 on Arbor Day, Friday, April 24, and will involve students from every grade singing songs, reading original poetry and essays and showcasing posters around the theme “Birds, Animals and Kids Love Trees.” The school orchestra and band also will participate, along with Commissioner David Brumfield and School Director Mary Birks, who will read the annual Arbor Day proclamation. A video of the event will air on cable channels 17 and 34 the following week.