To save Chicago trees, get forestry advice in place

Preserving mature trees is more important than ever. In an era of climate change, Chicago needs to make it an absolute priority.

On Paulina Street in the West Lake View neighborhood, where the city plans to cut down 29 mature trees to clear the road to replace old water pipes, some residents claim the Department of Water Management is not doing enough to save the trees. They also say the water department, which was originally supposed to cut down 40 trees, has not done a good enough job of keeping residents up to date on what is happening.

It is a complaint that has been repeated elsewhere and will be heard in neighborhoods throughout the city as infrastructure replacement projects continue.

In Andersonville, residents say they received a little warning last year before the city began chopping shady trees into stumps. They thought they had an agreement that the city would try alternative approaches before getting out of the chainsaws.

But after inserting liners into old pipes instead of replacing them, a process called cured-in-place piping, the water department said the experiment failed because cracks were found in three of 12 test liners. Confused residents said the trees fell before other alternatives could be explored.

On December 2, a sign hangs on one of many trees located along North Paulina Street between West Roscoe Street and West Belmont Avenue, warning that this tree could be felled during the main water work.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Conservatives and residents of the neighborhood point to the successful use in other cities of hardened pipes and pipe bursts, where a blasting tool enlarges an old pipe sufficiently to pull through a new one. Among the cities they say have used these alternatives are Minneapolis, Toronto and Detroit, and such suburbs as Waukegan, Evanston, Naperville, Arlington Heights and Orland Park.

“The things that they said are impossible are being done everywhere in big cities,” said Caroline Teichner, one of the residents hoping to save the Paulina Street trees.

A spokeswoman for the water department has said the city is always looking for opportunities to save trees.

The situation on Paulina underlines the need to get the city’s City Forest Advisory Council up and running. The city council approved its creation in June last year, but it has not yet gotten underway. An effective advisory committee could ensure that all departments in the city use best practices to protect Chicago’s tree crown. It could also give residents confidence that the city will explore all alternatives when considering whether a tree should fall.

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. Trees capture carbon dioxide instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere to warm the planet. They cool areas that would otherwise be unhealthy heat islands. They help people with respiratory problems by filtering air and reducing floods and water pollution by absorbing rainwater. Wildlife, including migratory birds, use them as habitat.

From 2001 to 2020, the world lost enough trees to cover about half of the United States, according to Global Forest Watch. Chicago lost an average of 10,000 more trees from 2010 to 2020 than it planted each year. No city can afford to lose mature trees unnecessarily.

Replacing water pipes is no picnic. Other supply lines snaking around underground. For fear of contamination, water pipes must not be too close to leaking sewer pipes.

No one is arguing that the waterline on Paulina should not be replaced. It has a significant break history and clean water is important to any Chicagoan. Ald. Matt Martin, if 47th Ward includes the stretch of Paulina where residents are trying to save the trees, said the focus now is to check if it is possible to get a deviation from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency that would allow the city to safely lay a new water main closer on existing sewer line, which would make room for the trees.

In its latest budget, the city set aside money to plant 75,000 new trees over five years, which is an important step forward.

But the planting of new trees, as it takes decades to grow to full size, should not be offset by the destruction of healthy mature trees. Getting the Urban Forestry Advisory Board up and running quickly can help the city save its trees.

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