EDINBURG — Increasingly, citizens and their elected officials are realizing the value of a healthy urban forest, according to Salvador Alemany, a Texas Forest Service regional urban forester in Weslaco.
“It’s a constant educational effort, but people are realizing just how important trees are to our quality of life, and they are asking their public officials for help in planting more trees and maintaining the ones we have,” he said.
Case in point, Alemany said, is the growing popularity of tree conferences he and others have organized to bring knowledge and awareness regarding the benefits and proper care of trees.
“This week marked the third tree conference I’ve helped organize in the three years I’ve been on the job here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “We had just over 100 registered participants who were treated to several outstanding speakers, experts in their fields.”
The 6th Annual RGV Community and Urban Forestry Conference was held recently at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance.
“Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia kicked off the day,” Alemany said. “He told us how a living memorial tree had been planted in honor of a city councilman, Noe Garza, who passed away in January. The tree will stand as a reminder to future generations about his years of service and the need to give back to the community.”
Other speakers and their topics included Grant Ehlen, AEP-Texas, chainsaw safety and planting the right tree in the right place; Steve Walker, Texas Department of Public Safety, landscaping in state highway right-of-ways; Dr. Raul Villanueva, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, native and invasive bugs threatening Texas trees; Erasmo Yarrito Jr., Rio Grande watermaster, the source of South Texas water; Dr. Andrew McDonald, University of Texas-Pan American, a history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s urban forest; Margaret Spencer, landscape and arboricultural consultant, introduction to arboriculture; and Alemany, proper watering of trees.
“The speakers were interesting and informative, but one speaker’s comment really caught my attention,” Alemany said. “Ms. Spencer told us that among the many benefits of trees to our health and environment, a recent study showed that expectant mothers who had access to an urban forest had less complicated deliveries. Trees are a win-win for communities, especially here in South Texas where it gets so hot.”
Alemany said he has aerial photos showing the vast increase in McAllen’s urban forest between the 1930s and today.
“We’ve conducted a tree inventory in McAllen and it is truly amazing how its urban forest has grown,” he said. “The increase is dramatic, especially on residential properties, but we’ve got so much more to do because trees still cover only a tiny percentage of the area we live in.”
Alemany constantly juggles many efforts in his attempt to promote urban forests, he said.
“We meet regularly with city and county officials because citizens are demanding more trees and parks,” he said. “We encourage cities to hire full-time urban foresters. Currently, McAllen, Edinburg and Brownsville have filled such positions. We conduct workshops, sponsor Arbor Day events to plant trees and teach children about trees. We work with AgriLife Extension to teach Master Gardeners about trees, and we address social clubs, including Kiwanis, Lions Club and the Rotary Club.”
The city of Brownsville currently has one of the oldest and strongest urban forest programs in South Texas, having started 13 years ago, Alemany said. They have had an urban forester since then and recently bought their second tree spade, a large implement used to dig up and transplant large trees.
“For the second time since 2003, Brownsville this year hosted the 123rd State Arbor Day Observance, a huge honor that moves from city to city and last year went to Houston. To qualify, Brownsville had to have been already designated as a Tree City USA, an honor not even San Antonio has received.”
As for the future, Alemany said the Texas Forest Service has developed a 20-year plan to help those communities in Texas which are expected to have large population growth.
“It’s called the Emerging Community Program,” he said. “We want to help in the planning process of growing communities to make sure trees are part of that growth,” he said.
“We’re also in the process of planning next year’s tree conference in either Edinburg or McAllen, which will be international in scope with speakers from Central and South American and from Spain.”
The conferences include four award categories to recognize individuals and groups who promote urban forestry, Alemany said.
This year’s awards and winners include: The James Matz Award, Barbara Storz, AgriLife Extension; the Rio Grande Valley Landscaping Project Award, Don Hugo Produce, Edinburg; the Annual Tree Conference Committee Award, City of Brownsville; and the Mixed Tree and Garden Planting Project Award, University of Texas-Pan American’s Veterans Wildscape Garden.