Tree lovers, tree stewards and tree protectors have grown across Arlington recently.
The county released its latest study of the 755,400-tree canopy (a protective asset from Mother Nature under threat from over-exuberant development), designated four protected tree specimens and updated its inventory of “champion trees.”
This weekend, I met with tree activists indoors and out. I noticed a gap between volunteers seeking mostly to appreciate our suburban forest and those delving into messy policies surrounding tree preservation.
This local conflict isn’t new. “Although Arlington has already lost a great deal of its forests through careless development of subdivisions, an awakened public concern over this priceless heritage will save a great deal of remaining beauty.”
That was written in 1959. Historian Eleanor Lee Templeman referenced the thousands of trees chopped down during Civil War to build forts protecting Washington. She bemoaned the loss in 1912 of an 18th-century poplar in Ballston cut down for W&OD Railroad. As a model of preservation, she mentioned the leafy island that planners preserved in the middle of John Marshall Dr. (between Little Falls Road and Williamsburg Blvd.)
Flash forward to 2018. The new tree canopy map was welcomed by the TreeStewards of Arlington and Alexandria. “Arlington reversed the decline in our tree canopy found in 2011,” they wrote, “but has not rebounded from our first measurement in 2008.” The overall 2017 canopy “remains fairly stable, with an increase of 1 percent.”
Tree steward Nora Palmatier, a member of the Urban Forestry Commission, works with Parks and Recreation Department arborist Vincent Verweij to locate special trees and volunteers to measure them. “You often hear people saying a tree was here during the Civil War, but there’s not really documentation,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how old a tree is if it’s meaningful to you,” as Verweij often says. “The best tree in Arlington is the one you love and that offers shade.”
Palmatier is fortunate that a tree in her yard was included on the county’s list of specially protected “specimen trees.”
Those differ from the “champion trees,” or Arlington’s largest of a species, 100 of which the county lists on its website by popular and Latin name, address and circumference.
For a taste of tree expertise, I accompanied some stewards on a walk around the stream bed and new asphalt paths of Woodlawn Park (behind the hospice on N. 15th St.). The crowd’s master naturalists forgave the newbies who have trouble telling trees apart. We were shown a “hybrid, with white oak bark and chestnut oak leaves” by botanist Emily Ferguson. Three tall tulip trees nearby, added Audubon Ambassador Beth Kiser, make a “large host plant for the tiger swallow butterfly.”
The impact of trees on “green infrastructure” — the ecosystem, area beauty, economic future — are the more urgent concerns of Arlington Tree Action Group members Mary Glass, Bill Roos and Margie Bell. On the group’s new website is their work assessing the value of Arlington’s trees in minimizing pollution and soil erosion.
Though cooperating with the county, the action group is skeptical of progress in preserving the tree canopy. The county’s new map “deserves more analysis and verification because it doesn’t always match what civic associations see on the ground,” they told me. There’s not enough in the law to enable tree preservation. “That requires a culture shift.”
Fun fact about the predecessor of Key Bridge: You can still see ancient stones from the abutments that formed the base of the Aqueduct Bridge that connected Georgetown to Arlington’s Rosslyn beginning in the 1830s.
When that 19th century structure (after a rebuilding in the 1880s) was demolished in 1918 (leaving only one fragment riverside), rows of individual red stones ended up in office buildings below M St. on 33rd St. NW.
I learned this from Arlington retired architect Dick Malesardi, who back in the 1960s redesigned one of those structures as his office at 1025 33rd St.