Has EL’s Tree Canopy Shrunk? We Might Find Out This Year

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Alice Dreger for ELi

A mature Norway spruce adorned by East Lansing humans with a face and a birdhouse.

“Tree planting in East Lansing is not keeping up with the tree cutting,” wrote one anonymous ELi reader, pointing to a perceived loss of trees in the Glencairn neighborhood and the cutting down of trees near the rainbow steps down to Valley Court Park and along Evergreen Avenue.

So, has the tree canopy in East Lansing shrunk in recent years? That question is hard to answer due to how the tree canopy is tracked over time.

ELi reached out to Cathy DeShambo, the Environmental Services Administrator for the City, who explained that, “Five-to-eight year cycles are considered standard for examining tree canopy.”

The City of East Lansing tracks tree data in five year cycles, and between 2011 and 2016, the City experienced no significant change in tree canopy, according to DeShambo. She said the City will soon prepare to track the tree canopy for the next five-year cycle.

According to a study performed in 2017 by Davey Resource Group based on aerial imagery from 2016, 31% of the City is covered by tree canopy. DeShambo provided a copy of the study’s findings to ELi.

“In terms of land area, the University (551 acres) and residential property (715 acres) have the largest amount of canopy acreage in the City,” said DeShambo. The City is comprised of 8,717 acres, including the University, residential property, and other additional land.

“The highest levels of tree canopy are found in the river (61%) and park (60%) land use types, followed by single-family residential (49%) and multiple-family residential (34%),” DeShambo told ELi. The tree canopy of open spaces was relatively low at 20%, with retail properties at 15% tree canopy coverage.

DeShambo also pointed out that a mix of greenery, roadways, and water cover the remainder of the City. “There are other types of land cover in the City: Impervious surface, such as roads, sidewalks and buildings, covers 27% of the City; Pervious surface, which includes grass and shrubs, covers 37%; Bare soil equates to 4% of cover and water surface is 1% of cover.”

While ELi readers have expressed concerns about tree loss, the City says it has planted approximately 250 trees since 2017.

Approximately 430 trees have been removed during the same period. DeShambo told ELi that some of the trees were removed after research showed some trees were in decline. Other trees were removed to allow for construction on Michigan Ave. and at the Pump Station.

Some of trees removed were replaced by contractors – not by the City – and therefore were not included in the estimate of 250 trees planted since 2017.

Numerous other construction projects in East Lansing have led to not only the development of downtown but also the cutting down of fully mature, large trees. For example, this year, the Evergreen Avenue sewer project has resulted in the removal of at least eight mature trees of diverse species with 35-50-foot heights and broad canopies. The demolition of the DDA’s Evergreen properties in that same stretch will soon result in the removal of two more mature trees, dramatically changing the feel of that part of the City.

The City says it will replant to replace those trees, but the trees the City plants as “replacement” trees are typically relatively petite trees designed to cause no trouble in terms of sewers, wires, and sidewalks.

There have also been other instances of extensive tree removal, for example along the Northern Tier Trail off Abbot Road in an attempt to prevent surface flooding along the drains.

Trees are removed for other reasons, too, according to DeShambo.

“When we identify a street tree that needs to be removed, because it has severely declined, died, or sometimes because it is causing irreversible infrastructure damage, we communicate with the property owner to let them know that if they are interested in a replacement tree, we will evaluate their parkway for a suitable planting site by making a site visit.”

The City has planted over 250 trees since 2017, most of which have been planted on street medians. The City works alongside the engineering department to make sure that the location of newly planted trees does not overlap with soon-to-be-developed sites.

The City aims to replant native trees to the area and states that they work with homeowners to select trees that they would prefer to be replanted on their property. Trees are planted in the spring, early summer, or fall and are planted on approved planting sites.

Trees provide many benefits to the community, and resources are available to help those interested in planting trees on their property.

According to the Davey Resource Group’s assessment, each year trees in East Lansing provide over $4,500,000 in benefits, remove 200,000 pounds of pollutants and 14,000 tons of carbon, and slow 43 million gallons of stormwater from entering drains.

“Tree canopy has also been proven to increase revenue in business districts, improve public health, and calm traffic in downtown areas,” the group wrote in its analysis.

But the findings also found that trees must be allowed to mature and new ones must be planted for the benefits to continue.

Homeowners are allowed to plant trees on their own on the “parkway” – the area between the curb and the sidewalk – but must contact DeShambo before doing so. (Flowers can be planted in parkways without permission, as ELi reported in its pre-incorporation-form back in 2012.)

Those planting trees should consider native species that are not susceptible to disease. ELi has previously reported on tree diseases and help available from MSU Extension.

Emily Joan Elliott and Alice Dreger contributed to reporting.

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