Late Afternoon in Savannah’s Urban Garden. A Tale of Two Cities

Don Gardener was 31 years old. Today he was as excited as a young kid. He just landed his dream job, one he had worked hard for many years to prepare for.

In 1982, he finished his studies at Ohio University at the Agricultural research and Development Center. He received his PhD in plant Pathology.

Before that he had earned a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture at the University of Tennessee in 1975 and later he earned his Master’s degree in 1977. Through an error of a professor accidentally throwing out his work he lost two years of study. Yes, he had paid the price to get his education and to finally land this job.

Tree Legend: Dr. Alex Shigo

During his work and school, he met a tree legend, Dr. Alex Shigo and that led him to becoming a certified arborist. In fact, he took the test as soon as certification was available and scored what is believed to be one of the highest scores ever achieved.

Dr. Gardner, a title he was still not comfortable with, was living for the past 18 months in Knoxville, Tennessee, working for a tree service company. One day he saw a job advertisement in the Journal of Arboriculture. A job working with live oak trees in a City full of them, Savannah, Georgia.

Sure it’s a big job, caring for all the municipal trees, all parkland spaces, and management of all the park and tree department resources, both equipment and personnel. But it was a dream comes true.

Savannah is Full Of Live Oak Trees

To Don, a live oak is an amazing plant. Savannah was full of those trees. In fact the trees were major factors in Savannah’s tourism. He knew the beautiful downtown trees in the parks and squares needed to be cared for to keep the millions of tourists coming back to Savannah, year after year.

The day is forever forged in his memory, October 31, 1983. His first day as the Park and Tree Director for the City of Savannah.

He would tell his tree staff that he knew tourism was second only to the ports and their job was to chase the ports and shame on the ports if park and tree ever beat them. Little did he know at the time that tourist would reach 12 million people a year by 2013.

There was a big learning curve on this new job. History and politics both played as big of a role in the job as anything. That fact he would learn the hard way.

Planting a City of Oak Trees

Near the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s the City decides to plant a city of oak trees. The reason was Savannah’s history, at the turn of the century, a major hurricane wiped out most of Savannah’s trees. The City responded to this, by planting a whole bunch of trees, mostly live oak trees all at approximately the same time. Problem is they didn’t also decide NOT to care for those trees.

Some 80 years earlier, in 1896 the Park and Tree Commission was created and had the control and authority over the parks and trees in Savannah. Don’s biggest adversary in his new job, so he thought, was the age of the trees that were from the large scale planting at the turn of the century.

As time passed, in 1951, Savannah had moved to a City Council / City Manager form of government. After much resistance from the commission, the control over Savannah’s parks and trees was transferred to the City Manager. The City is now the manager of the aging urban forest.

An urban forest; how is that different than a regular forest? Simple answer, people. You see, trees left to their own accord out in the woods, they pretty much care for themselves. Pruning in the woods is a natural occurring process. Not so in the City.

An urban forest is when you build a city among the trees and you have to manage the health of the trees from encroachments like sidewalks, streets, cars, construction equipment, all while having a primary focus on the safety of people.

Trees just like humans are mortal. As trees age they become increasingly “at risk” for disease. Sadly if they are not maintained properly they develop structural defects.

Marmon’s Tree Program in 1980

Marmon Thompson was Don’s predecessor at the Park and Tree Department. Marmon had developed a tree program in 1980. Mr. Thompson was concerned and had created a plan to deal with hazard trees that were threatening the safety of streets and citizens in Savannah. The trees that the City had made the decision to plant. The ones they made the decision to not maintain, well they were starting to get old and large.

Marmon Thompson’s program raised concerns that from 1960 to 1980 tree removals had consistently risen. The plan specifically addressed liability problems created by the aging, large diameter oak trees.

In his report there were many “public trees” found to have defects, that he stated if not addressed would result in limb failures that could result in damage to property and injuries to people. The City of Savannah clearly was on notice of these dangers caused by old trees as early as 1980.

The program started in 1980 and 500 trees had to be removed that year. By 1988 that number had risen to 1000 tree removals per year.

In looking at Mr. Thompson’s report and also at City service request reports, Don soon realized that the Director’s job and Savannah needed more. “Mr. Thompson’s program didn’t go far enough.’’

Creating this new plan became Don’s quest. The City of Savannah’s Master Tree Plan would be his written vision. This plan would take a career, a lifetime to reach all the plan’s goals. But the trees were worth it. It took 5 long, hard years to do so but he finally created The City of Savannah’s Park and Tree Department’s Master Tree Plan. The MTP was born in 1988.

The MTP included planting new trees, preventative maintenance of existing trees, especially the larger and older trees.

Step one, was to inventory all City owned trees in Savannah. That was done. This was the first and last time all of Savannah’s Trees had ever been inventoried. The MTP then created a pruning schedule.

The goal was to visit every tree at least once every seven years. The MT implemented a protocol for when a tree would be evaluated for risks. Risks included things like a large limb failure, or nearby construction (such as a road or sidewalk), or other damage to a tree or its roots. The protocol required an ariel inspection and a “tree risk assessment” also called a “hazard tree assessment.”

Don Gardner wrote up this plan and shared it with all who would listen. The plan addressed the goals of “ensuring the safety of the urban forest and each tree in the forest for all users at all times. To ensure the health of the urban forest, for each tree in the forest at all times”. Clearly a noble cause.

Don wanted to ensure that trees are maintained in such a way that you don’t have tree failures with limbs dropping out of trees. Under his Master plan, in the day to day real world of managing Savannah’s Urban Forest, his decisions would be based on how to reduce exposure to liability. He learned that the Mayor and Aldermen, and specifically, the City Manager, decided or determined how much risk they are willing to carry, this is controlled by budgets, money.

Don provided a copy of The Master Tree Plan to his bureau chief. He visited and spoke about it to all of the members within the Park and Tree Commission. His plan was well received. He improved it with input from the Tree Commission.

This was a written plan of good urban forest management. In his own words, he had created a dynamic, comprehensive plan for obtaining the safest healthiest, most aesthetically pleasing urban forest at the lowest possible cost for the people of Savannah. Yes Don loves trees.

Don knew that trees in urban areas represent risks to its citizens. He understood that someone has to provide care to those trees in order to intercept hazards. Before Mr. Thompson’s plan in 1980 the City of Savannah had no program to care for trees. The City would simply plant a tree and let nature take its course.

No early pruning to set the limb structure, no program to take out cross over limbs, diseased wood, nothing. The problem with that is if you don’t correct a defect, it just grows larger, until it fails. This kind of stress makes trees susceptible to disease and insects, which also contributes to limb and tree failures.

Don said a city constantly encroaching on its trees was like trying to raise a St. Bernard in a one room apartment. In his words, “the cute puppy had out grown the small apartment.”

Mr. Thompson knew way back in 1980, that to get a handle on this, the City needed a pruning program. This program would have to start addressing those problems, street by street, tree by tree. After his inventory, Don learned there were 85,000 of them.

The plan was implemented by Dr. Don Gardner as the Director of Park and Tree Department in 1988, until politics took away his position in the year 2000.

The work at first was slow and difficult having the challenge of pruning trees that hadn’t been cared for, for over 50 years. They often removed wood that was 30 or 40 years old, and that took more time.

Twelve years he was dedicated to his mission. 1988 to 2000. The improvements were showing. If they had continued, the iteration of pruning assessment and the cycles would soon have gotten shorter and shorter.

Don learned sadly that he wasn’t allowed to simply care for trees. He had a boss that didn’t share his love of trees with. Politicians wanted to spend money on things besides trees. City Managers have more important things to direct resources and budgets to.

As the years passed, he was saddled with more and more responsibilities. As if 85,000 trees weren’t enough, he was given 23 parks and squares, 40 monuments, City Cemeteries, the list grew and grew.

The real changes happened without Don even knowing about them, after he was gone.

New City Managers, new Mayors, new Councilmen and finally, a new City Attorney; people came and went. If Don had delivered the message it was long since forgotten or the people who cared about the MPT were long gone.

The City politicians, concerned about green things besides leaves, had continuously handed off the care of the trees to a smaller and smaller department. The barely adequate staff Don Gardner had supervised had shrunk by more than 6 people.

The proactive maintenance and pruning plan was no more. A reactive system called 311 had been put in place. 311 allowed citizens, untrained in the care of trees, to call in a problem. The small staff was spending 90 to 95% of their time reacting to citizen calls.

No one dared to be out sick or they found their position was eliminated. This happened to arborist Kevin Brown. People were being taken out of their jobs through a RIF, reduction in force.

Don was disappointed when he learned his 12 years of hard work up until 2000, had been dropped over the next 13 years.

Now he sits in 2013, his mind racing.

He is nervous. He is conflicted.

He had long time friendships with the few folks left at the park and tree department. He doesn’t want to hurt them or cause anyone’s jobs to be in jeopardy.

He is a little angry; the politics of the City had caused him to lose his dream. They had run him off. Now he is being drug back into this mess.

He is also sad; one of America’s largest urban gardens is being badly neglected. He loves trees.

A lady lost her leg, her hip, her pelvis and maybe worse?

Jobs are at risk…

A voice interrupts his thoughts, “Sir please raise your right hand, do you swear to tell the truth.”

And so it begins.

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