“The beauty of my job,” says Joran Viers, the city of Albuquerque’s new urban forester, “is I can go out and speak for the trees, and for what the trees need and want.”
Viers has been on the job only a month, but he’s had a chance to look in on a number of the 21,000 or so trees in 298 city parks that are now under his care.
There are problems.
Some trees have been planted incorrectly and not given a chance to grow. Others are reaching the end of their lifespan and are in decline. But the biggest problem is a lack of water that has stressed some trees and rendered others, in Viers’ words, “stone cold dead.”
“And,” he says, “it’s all over town.”
Viers comes to the forester job at a challenging time, when hot, dry weather makes tree canopy ever more vital to Albuquerque’s livability and ever harder to maintain.
Tree ring data show that the 30-year period starting in the mid-1970s was one of the wettest periods in the Southwest in 1,000 years. For a lot of us, that’s when we bought our houses and planted our trees, and formed our ideas about what constitutes a “normal” climate that keeps those trees healthy.
The leafless branches and dead stumps we see all over Albuquerque attest to how things have changed and the trouble we’ve had adapting.
“We planted a lot, we watered a lot and it was raining a lot,” Viers says of our recent past. “Now we have less rain and higher temperatures, and we can’t water as much. And it shows. Trees are big plants with lots of leaves and they need lots of water, and there is no getting around that.”
Even though Viers is responsible only for the city of Albuquerque’s trees, he is a self-described “tree nerd” and he has great concern for the way misguided xeriscaping has hurt trees all over the city:
People take out turf and turn their yards over to rock in order to reduce the spaces that need water. That makes yards hotter and turns off water to the remaining trees. (“If I could pass one law,” he says, “I would outlaw rock mulch around trees.”)
We also turn off the sprinkler system and switch to drip emitters at the base of our trees, putting water in about the only place an established tree doesn’t need it and putting no water out beyond the canopy where its roots live.
Or we keep our turf and water it lightly three times a week, when our trees need deeper watering only a couple times a month.
So we’re doing everything wrong?
“Pretty much,” says Viers.
Viers told me to meet him at Villella Park in a neighborhood near San Mateo and Comanche NE to see what a city park with problems looks like. We stood near a dead, 35-year-old cottonwood tree that was being dismantled by a man with a chain saw. I was struck by how sad it is to attend a big tree’s funeral.
Nearby were cottonwoods in various states of distress and some that were doing beautifully. There were several dead ash trees, some struggling catalpas and a vast expanse of grass that was doing OK. If we all, including the city, could continue to pour water on the landscape, fixing up this park would be a snap, but Viers understands that his job is going to be more complicated than that.
“To the degree we can keep trees growing in a city like this, we’ve got to really think about their water needs,” he says. “I don’t have any easy answers.”
Viers is 51 and, before he took the city forester job, he worked for 10 years as a horticultural agent for the Bernalillo County Extension Service and before that ran the state’s Organic Commodity Commission. Viers, an Albuquerque native, has degrees in biology and botany, and is a certified arborist.
“There are very few trees I’m not fond of,” says Viers, who describes a special fondness for the strangler fig, but adds sycamore, ashes, Chinese pistache and burr oak to his list of trees nicely suited for Albuquerque. He even has kind things to say about the Siberian elm. Despite its pollen problems and tendency to colonize, he says, “It gives us a tree where nothing else will grow.”
Is it possible to reduce water use while growing healthy trees? Viers says yes, as long as we make choices.
“I totally get that we need to conserve water,” Viers says. “What I would say is that, to the degree that we also need to grow trees, that’s where we need to spend water.”
His ideal yard, then, would dispense with grass and cover the ground with nutrient-rich wood chips (not to be confused with inert bark chips) to mulch and feed the soil and then he would water for the trees.
“Turf does provide a cooling and it does provide green, but it doesn’t shade,” Viers says. “If the mulch makes the trees and shrubs grow really nicely, that’s what we’re after. And under conditions of limited water where we have to go either-or, to my mind not having turf and using that water to grow trees is going to provide a much better return.”
After all, he says, “Trees chill us out.”