With the warm weather Aspen has seen this spring, the leaves on the trees have been coming out sooner, which means that Aspen city forester Chris Forman has been spending more time doing the part of his job he likes the most.
“People are realizing they have trees again ... [and] trees shoot up on the list of importance this time of year,” Forman said this week. “They go highly unnoticed in the winter.”
Working with city residents on any and all arboricultural issues they might have, whether the trees in question are on public or private land, is one of the services Aspen’s full-time municipal forester provides.
“If Mrs. Smith has a problem with her crab apple tree, I’m happy to come talk with her about it,” Forman said.
Like tax time for accountants, this is perhaps the busiest time of year for Forman and the crews that plant, prune and maintain the more than 8,000 trees that line the streets and parks of Aspen (this doesn’t include trees in open space areas, greenbelts like the Rio Grande Trail or on private land). The earlier spring melt also means there is more time to plant new trees before the heat of the summer, a luxury the forestry team doesn’t always have.
Another critical aspect of the job is to make sure “the right tree is being planted in the right place,” Forman said. “We try to instill that in folks — to know what a tree is going to be like in 20, 30, 40 years.”
Dedicated full-time municipal foresters are common in many bigger cities, but are relatively rare in smaller mountain communities, Forman said. Many of those small towns, however, including others in the Roaring Fork Valley, employ professional foresters on a contract basis, Forman said.
Aspen passed its first “tree ordinance” 25 years ago, giving the city the power to protect the “community forest” and mandate the preservation of “heritage trees,” according to Aspen Parks and Open Space Director Stephen Ellsperman. The ordinance has since evolved into a more holistic set of guidelines for managing the ecological and aesthetic functions of the city forest, Ellsperman wrote in an email.
Twenty years ago, Aspen became certified as a “Tree City USA,” which requires, among other things, that the city spend at least $2 per capita annually on the urban forest. On Saturday, May 12 at Paepcke Park on Main Street, there will be a community celebration to mark Arbor Day and the “Tree City” anniversary. From 10 a.m. until about 12:30 p.m., there will be plenty of family-friendly activities including giveaways, games and bucket truck rides for kids. There also will be hot dogs.
In 1998, the city hired its first full-time forester. Forman said he believes he is the third to have held the position, which for him, has been for six years.
According to Ellsperman, the forestry program — part of the parks department — has an annual budget of around $150,000 between staffing and capital expenditures. The city also is accredited by the Society of Municipal Arborists.
“The forestry and natural resource programs are integrated into every program that we have, whether it be parks development and management, parks maintenance, trail programs [or] downtown core programs,” Ellsperman wrote. “These programs are core values to the community and are as important as any other function of the parks and open space department.”
It’s not lost on Forman that he is the head forester in a city named after a tree.
“I just feel extremely happy to be in the position I’m in,” said Forman, who holds a forest management degree from Colorado State University and has been a certified arborist for a dozen years, working on the Front Range before coming to Aspen. “I spend a lot of time outdoors with citizens of a community who really care. ... There’s a high level of awareness out there about the importance of trees.”
Besides working with residents on tree issues, which Forman said he spends most of his time doing, the city forester also enforces the permitting process that’s triggered any time a development project comes forward that affects nearby trees. Developers whose projects result in the removal of trees are required to either replace them on site, or a pay a cash in lieu fee that goes toward the city’s forestry efforts.
Forman said it’s “cool and exciting” to work with developers to come up with “creative ways to do tree preservation.”
“We don’t save every tree, and every tree should not be saved,” Forman said, but the preservation experience has given him a chance to “see what works and what doesn’t.”
Trial and error is a reoccurring theme in the life of a high-altitude city forester, Forman said. There are upwards of 30 species of trees in town, but not all of them are best suited to the climate.
“We are constantly testing new trees and pushing the boundaries of what they can do,” he said, adding that diversifying the urban forest is always a goal.
Forman keeps a database with an entry for each city tree. Depending on the age and size of the tree, some get more attention than others. There are around 100 larger trees that he checks on at least once a year. Some trees cause the sidewalk to break and buckle, like many of the 80- to 100-year-old cottonwoods that line Main Street. Others are blocking street signs or are simply near the end of their life and at risk of falling over. For these, Forman uses a “hazard tree management plan.”
The decision to remove a tree is made only after scientific study, Forman said.
Forman sees the city’s trees — which make up what city officials regularly refer to as the premier high-country urban forest in the nation — as critical infrastructure, just like roads and water lines. Forman said he keeps some “wow numbers” on how much carbon dioxide the urban forest takes out of the atmosphere, and the benefits the trees provide in absorbing stormwater runoff and capturing pollution-causing PM-10 dust.
Forman works with a forestry crew that does much of the manual labor — “the guys that really make it happen,” he said. They have the city divided up into five “management units” to more closely hone in on tree issues. With the improvements currently underway in Rio Grande Park near the Theatre Aspen tent frame, the team has had plenty to do lately, Forman said.
If you have trees on your property, the best thing to do is a “deep, infrequent watering” using many gallons of water per inch of the tree’s diameter, Forman said, which encourages the root structure to grow deeper into the ground. To know when it’s time to water, check the dirt around the root structure by sticking a screwdriver into the soil. If the screwdriver comes up dry, it’s time to water. If the tool comes up wet or covered in soil, hold off, he said.