Trees worth saving: Shelley Abeyta and her daughter Liliana Anaya walk under the crabapple trees lining the sidewalk next to the Jerry Apodaca Education Building in April 2020.
Santa Fe and much of the rest of New Mexico are in what the National Drought Mitigation Center calls “exceptional drought.” To put that designation in perspective, it means arid conditions worse than “severe drought” or “extreme drought.”
“Exceptional drought” is as bad as it gets. Parts of northern New Mexico are among the hardest hit.
Successful long-range planning and multi-sourcing seem to have held off crisis conditions as far as drinking water in Santa Fe goes. But the state’s agriculture sector is being hit hard. With grassland dwindling, many ranchers are selling off much of their stock at rock-bottom prices.
Then, there are the trees. Piñon pine, already assaulted twice during the 21st century by drought and deadly beetles that take over and kill the trees in times of duress, are again going down. About five years ago, Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists said much of the piñon/juniper ecosystem could be in major decline by 2050 and gone altogether by the turn of the next century if conditions continue to get dryer and hotter under climate change. Other kinds of trees are also browner than they should be.
It’s the kind of problem that can seem overwhelming. If saving northern New Mexico’s piñon/juniper landscape means preventing climate change, do we have a chance? Is there time for the U.S. and the rest of the world to get together and do enough?
Well, as the saying goes, start local. To that end, Santa Fe is starting a program aimed at saving and planting trees in city parks.
City data shows nearly 20% of the 1,858 trees in the parks are either in poor condition or are dying, and many are already dead.
That’s an unusually high percentage of trees in failing condition, according to city urban forestry designer Athena Beshur. A failure to address them could spell disaster for the future of Santa Fe’s tree canopy.
The new Treesmart Santa Fe initiative will reconsider where the city plants trees, aiming for a better chance of survival during climate change.
The city also intends to increase the tree canopy on Santa Fe’s Southside, an area that has historically had fewer trees than other parts of the city. A heat map 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.
Also, “A Fund for Santa Fe’s Trees” has been established at the Santa Fe Community Foundation with a $30,000 donation from a national foundation; further donations are encouraged. The goal is to use the fund to provide grants for groups that want to plant trees, with review by a professional arborist, and to encourage planting of trees in appropriate locations.
The city hasn’t said anything about how our ubiquitous and much-maligned Siberian or Chinese elms fit into the plan. The non-native elms are half nuisance weed, overwhelming rights of way and street medians, and despised for attacking water and sewer lines, and half no-maintenance-required shade soft-wood trees that apparently can grow just about anywhere.
Santa Fe County, meanwhile, is making an effort to boost the piñon population on county-owned open space land by planting seeds on cooler slopes facing north and east. Some piñons are benefiting from tubes that help catch runoff. Also, county tree thinning is being used to help limit damaging pest spread, and create stands with bigger and more resilient trees.
The official launch of TreeSmart Santa Fe will take place on April 30, National Arbor Day. The kick-off event will be a “small, COVID-safe tree-planting ceremony” at a location to be determined.
As another saying goes, from small seeds big things grow. The city and county’s efforts to save our tree canopy and traditional landscape deserve support (you can donate to A Fund for Santa Fe Trees at santafecf.org/give-now). But the projects also must have long-term commitment to attain success.
This is one effort that shouldn’t end up forgotten on the shelf in a few years.