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TreeSmart Santa Fe speaks for the area’s trees

TreeSmart Santa Fe is an effort to increase the tree canopy in the capital city.

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Santa Fe has long been a city known for its trees; skyline photos frequently feature the city’s iconic landmarks jutting out of a sea of branches and leaves.

But with the increasing impacts of climate change – including severe drought conditions throughout the region – keeping Santa Fe’s large number of trees intact is becoming more of a challenge.

City data shows nearly 20% of the 1,858 trees in Santa Fe’s parks are either in poor condition or are dying, and many are already dead.

Urban Forestry Designer Athena Beshur said that’s an unusually high percentage of trees in failing condition. A failure to address them could spell disaster for the future of Santa Fe’s tree canopy.

“They have major problems,” Beshur said. “Without those (trees) being rectified, in 20 years those are all going to die.”

In response, the city announced plans Monday for a new initiative called TreeSmart Santa Fe, which aims to increase and protect the city’s tree canopy, an increasingly complicated task.

One of the primary goals of the initiative will be to rethink how and where the city plants trees, so that they are better adapted for a changing climate.

Acting Parks Division Director Melissa McDonald told the Journal most urban trees only last 7-10 years and species such as ash trees can’t survive long in extreme drought conditions. All of New Mexico is enduring some level of drought and Santa Fe has been in the most extreme category for months.

“We’re seeing species that normally would do OK are not necessarily able to handle the extreme condition,” McDonald said.

As a result, the city will start planting species of trees in locations they’re more likely to thrive in, McDonald said.

The city also intends to increase the tree canopy on Santa Fe’s Southside, an area that has historically lacked the number of trees seen in other parts of the city.

A heat map of Santa Fe shows the Southside is significantly warmer than other parts of the city and officials say the lack of shade from trees plays a major role.

“Heat islands,” as they’re often called, often lead to residents spending more on utilities, make areas less walkable and can lead to increases of heat-related illnesses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And planting trees can’t be the only solution – Beshur said if the city planted 80 trees a year for the next 30 years, the total number of trees would still be less than today. Therefore, it’s especially important to treat sick trees that can still be saved.

“I think a lot of places are facing these issues now,” she said.

City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, who is sponsoring a resolution on TreeSmart Santa Fe, told reporters Monday the initiative will be a long-term project, but one that hopefully will see the canopy thriving in future decades.