Effort launched to bolster Bristol’s 'urban forest'

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 10/13/23

Even though Bristol is about 6% short of ideal canopy coverage, a goal of an additional 1% coverage is sought, equating out to the planting of 625 trees a year for the next 10 years.

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Effort launched to bolster Bristol’s 'urban forest'


About 30 residents gathered at the Herreshoff Room at the Rogers Free Library on Tuesday, Oct. 3, to launch a community conversation about Bristol’s urban forest.

It is, noted one participant, a project that will never actually end, as the maintenance of a forest canopy is an ever-evolving undertaking. Accordingly, this initial meeting was designed to both convey the importance of a robust urban canopy to residents while also gathering information on what the community thinks should be prioritized in a tree management plan.

The state of Rhode Island has been awarded about $1.2 million in federal funds, channeled through the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), for urban forestry. That money, along with additional funding expected to be received via the State’s congressional delegation will pay for consultants as well as the actual trees to be planted, though it remains to be seen how that money will be divided among the state’s communities.

Community Development Director Diane Williamson welcomed everyone to the event. “This is a very exciting project and we are very lucky to have this team working on it,” she said, referring to the team from the Green Infrastructure Center, a Virginia-based organization that brings diverse stakeholder groups together to develop green infrastructure plans that meet community needs. “This project will give us the tools, resources, and mapping to help protect and add to our urban forest.”

Matthew Lee, the Director of Forest Conservation for the Green Infrastructure Center gave an extensive presentation on the importance of a robust urban tree canopy. Backed up by several geographic information systems (GIS) images, he showed where the tree canopy is — and is not — what we would ideally like it to be.

Trees provide a lot more than just shade — and there is data that demonstrates measurable benefits to the ecosystem in terms of air quality, carbon sequestration, and impact on urban heat. Fully 20% of annual rainfall is stored in the tree crown, and trees also increase the infiltration capacity of soils. Trees keep stormwater from overwhelming systems — a robust canopy can keep some 14 million gallons of water out of the system during a once-a-year heavy rainfall of 2.8 inches in 24 hours. That can have direct impacts on the condition of our infrastructure as well as the health of the harbor.

We need a few more trees
Using GIS, the Green Infrastructure Center has determined that about 44% of Bristol is well-treed. But that means that for every heavily-forested area like Mount Hope Farm, there are plenty of areas that are less than 10% treed. According to Lee, they don’t recommend any community have 100% coverage — people have other things they want to do with their land, from baseball diamonds to vegetable gardens — so they recommend a cap at about 50% coverage.

Notably, Lee said that large trees provide the most environmental benefits.
Even though Bristol is about 6% short of ideal canopy coverage, Lee recommended a goal of an additional 1% coverage in the near term. While that might not sound like a heavy lift, the fact is that a 1% increase would require the planting of 625 trees a year for the next 10 years — along with effective stewardship of the trees we do have. Location, as well as species, are key — as is diversity.

“We want diversity,” said Lee, “and native is not always suitable for hardscape. Pests and pathogens can cause a decimating event.”

He anticipates that planting will begin in the fall of 2024 or the spring of 2025.

Outlining a strategy for Bristol, the plan highlighted several ideas for action, and participants were asked to rate their priorities to help sharpen the plan’s focus.

Those ideas include planting more trees in right-of-ways where canopy is less than 10%; making a 5-year or 10-year street tree planting plan; taking an inventory of heritage trees in the historic district and champion trees elsewhere in the community; update tree inventory data in rights-of-way and on public property; beautify downtown by planting smaller flowering trees; adopt a town policy that states trees are a part of the community's infrastructure and important for stormwater management; retrofit properties with new tree plantings and green infrastructure to reduce impervious surfaces; establish a community wide Tree Planting Campaign for Bristol; educate the public on tree removals and risks of tree hazards to prevent tree loss; and continue to build partnerships for trees and green infrastructure around the East Bay with groups such as Save Bristol Harbor and Eastern RI Conservation District.

Though this is just the beginning of the conversation, stakeholders were optimistic that Bristol will be a model in the state for this program, which is currently being launched in only two other towns — Barrington and East Providence. “We’ve gotten great enthusiasm from the community,” said Nancy Stairs, the Cooperative Forestry Program Supervisor for DEM. “It’s going to be great.”

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.