Protect those trees: Hamilton arborist creating urban forest management plan

Master Arborist Sylvia McNeill is developing an Urban Forest Management Plan for the city of Hamilton. She hopes people with any connection to the community will take time to fill out a short online survey to help guide those efforts.

Sylvia McNeill likes to say that trees are hiding in plain sight.

After all, most people take trees for granted. They’ll make sure to keep their lawns watered and then mow it once a week, but hardly take notice of the decades-old tree that’s the centerpiece of their landscape.

“The only time that people take trees into consideration is when the leaves begin to fall or they start bumping their heads into a branch when they are mowing their lawns,” said the longtime Hamilton arborist. “It’s a love/hate relationship.”

McNeill is hoping to change that for the people who live, work and play in Hamilton.

The city of Hamilton has decided that it needs to develop an urban forestry strategic management plan focused on the nearly 1,600 trees it owns along the edge of city streets. The plan’s goal is to provide a tool for the city to efficiently and cost-effectively maintain and enhance its urban forest resource.

City officials chose McNeill to create the plan.

That makes sense considering the fact the master arborist has been working alongside her husband for more than 30 years tending to the needs of trees in the Bitterroot Valley, with a focus on Hamilton.

“We know Hamilton. We know the trees in Hamilton. And we know a lot of the people in Hamilton,” she said.

McNeill doesn’t want this to be her plan. She’s asking everybody, which includes residents, visitors, business owners or service providers, to give her some input on what they think about Hamilton’s urban forest. To get that information, McNeill hopes folks will take a few minutes to fill out a survey at http://www.cityofhamilton.net/newsdetail_T1_R144.html.

People without access to a computer can get a paper copy at Hamilton City Hall, 223 S. Second St., or at the Public Works Department, 920 New York Ave., in Hamilton. The deadline to complete the survey is May 31.

McNeil plans to use the results of the survey to guide in the development of the urban forestry management plan.

Hamilton Mayor Jerry Steele hopes the plan will provide some good ideas on the direction the city needs to take in addressing its urban forest.

“Unfortunately, Hamilton has a lot of the same type of tree,” Steele said. “They tend to die at about the same time. We need to start taking better care of them.”

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Many of the community’s boulevard trees were planted in the early 1900s. Many of those are nearing the end of their life spans.

“We’ve been replanting some of the trees after we lose one,” he said. “We talk to the landowner and, if we can get a commitment from them to water it, we’ll buy them a new tree. Sometimes people don’t want to replace them. Our first priority is to save them if we can. If we can’t, then we have to remove them.”

McNeill said it will be important that Hamilton’s urban forest management plan is site specific.

“We can’t use what works in Pittsburgh or Seattle or even Spokane,” she said. “We have our own challenges that we need to address here.”

When it comes time to replace those aging trees, McNeill said it needs to be done in an informed manner that takes into account what grows well in Hamilton on different types of sites.

“There’s really nothing native in an urban environment because it’s been built,” she said. “People bring in trees. They want shade and they want it fast. They plant a fast-growing tree, which tends to have weaker wood and then we end up with a higher maintenance tree.

“In the plan, we’ll look at species diversity and longevity,” McNeill said. “We’ll look at species with the least problems.”

A good deal of the effort will be centered on education.

“There’s a lot of people out there who have all kinds of misconceptions about tree care,” she said. “There are very few hard and fast answers to many of the questions. Everyone has their own needs and requirements. What you want out of your tree might not be what your neighbor wants out of theirs. That doesn’t mean that either one of them is wrong.”

McNeill envisions the urban forestry plan will include suggestions for budgets as well as monitoring and maintenance schedules. It will offer suggestions for replacement species and bring the inventory up to date.

“It’s a plan that will help the city with the management of its trees,” she said. “I also see it as being beneficial to the general public. We need to get the word out to the public that these tools and resources exist. They need to know there is a knowledge base upon which to draw upon. Part of the plan will be to get that outreach started.”

McNeill has until June 30 to finalize the management plan and submit it to the city.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.