Loot taking root

City assigns dollar amounts to area trees
Light filters through a large paper birch on the front lawn at Soldotna city hall Thursday afternoon. Of the nearly 500 trees the city has assessed, this tree - listed at $22,700 - is the most valuable.

Money may not grow on trees, but there's $22,700 growing out of the soil in front of Soldotna City Hall.

The triple-trunked tree - a 45-foot tall paper birch - was examined by a team of officials several weeks ago as part of Soldotna's tree inventory project, which assigned a monetary value to about 500 trees on city property.

The city received a $20,000 match grant - 50 percent comes from the state, 50 percent from the city - through the Department of Natural Resources' Urban Forestry Program for the project. The group of DNR personnel, arborist Jim Flott from Spokane, a software developer from the East Coast, and city officials convened for a week of training in July to prepare for the counting and categorizing that took place between July 18 and 22.

"The inventory is more than just counting trees," wrote Stephen Nickel, a community assistance forester with DNR. "The community forest is a valuable component of city infrastructure, much like fire trucks and police cars."

Seven people used handheld GPS devices to individually evaluate trees around city hall, the police department, and Soldotna Creek Park, accounting for species, location, size, condition, and age, among other things.

The data, once collected, was plugged into the city's computers and will be used to create a master management plan which will analyze "the city's tree population and provide recommendations for expanding and improving the health, safety and appearance of the forest," according to Nickels.

"Trees are the only piece of city infrastructure that increase in value as they age - this is, if they are properly maintained," Nickels wrote.

The computer program, TreeWorks, displays a cluster of dots which can be individually clicked and selected to represent one tree, or the data can be organized according to category. On the monetary value spectrum, the list ranges from a smattering of $0 trees to the more standard $100-$1,000 range, all the way up to the $22,700 tree in front of city hall.

"One of the things that this software does is assign a value to each tree," city planner Stephanie Queen explained. "There's an industry standard, accepted way of coming up with a dollar amount of trees. And by collecting all of this information, we now have that."

This can help the city in several ways, Queen and Nickel said.

"Should we have a natural disaster and part of all of our forest is destroyed," Nickel supposed, "FEMA can take the inventory data and tree value and provide funds for replanting the forest."

Parks and Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael pointed out that if a drunk driver were to hit and destroy a tree on city property, the information could help determine how much the driver would have to reimburse the city depending on "how much we might have paid for a tree if we had a construction project as opposed to that 14-inch (wide) spruce that might have grown for the last 50 years."

Queen stated that this new handheld GPS technology brought to the city via the grant can, and will, be used for other endeavors as well.

"This is something that we'll be able to use beyond the trees," she said. "We'll be able to go collect information on storm drains and manholes and use this throughout many of the departments."

Flott, the arborist from Spokane who speaks for the trees, is currently preparing a draft master plan which will make recommendations based on the data on how the city might be able to better manage its arboreal infrastructure.

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