Who knew Portland had tree envy?
About 26 percent of Portland is covered by tree leaves, branches and trunks, when viewed from above. San Antonio boasts 38 percent coverage and Atlanta nearly 37 percent, according to separate analyses by conservation group American Forests and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We're good, but we're not at the top," said Brian Krieg, chairman of the citizen Urban Forestry Commission.
But the canopy question goes beyond mere competitiveness, as Portland hopes to finish a citywide tree proposal that will increase canopy coverage as well as streamline tree policies.
Krieg and his fellow commissioners worry that the city is turning into a haven for skinny trees, resulting from infill development that cuts down thick shady trees in favor of trees that resemble twigs.
"We do love our trees. The question of exactly how at risk we are is a little hard to grasp in that we don't have an exhaustive tree inventory," Krieg said.
Portland has plenty of ornamental trees, like the cherry and plum blossoms now in bloom.
What we're not planting, however, are evergreens, Oregon white oak, northern red oaks and nut trees that can be costly to maintain but provide multi-fold environmental benefits, according to Joe Poracsky, a professor of geography at Portland State University and member of the forestry commission.
"It takes a long time for trees to grow," he said. "You can't fix a tree problem in two or three years."
Which means the city has to start now. Big tree proponents want the city to develop around existing large trees, and to make room for future trees by bundling infrastructure underground and planning for broader strips.
The canopy goal for Portland is 33 percent citywide, and higher for residential neighborhoods. The city of Baltimore is at 25 percent coverage and Boston is at 22 percent, according to the model used by the federal agriculture department.
Meryl Redisch, a forestry member and executive director of the Audubon Society of Portland, said she was surprised that Portland's leafy reputation doesn't match its performance.
"I felt that way when I arrived here from Salt Lake City and Salt Lake's in the desert," Redisch said. "I was expecting more, and when I say more, from my perspective, I was expecting more maintenance and care of trees."
It's true Portland lacks a comprehensive, regular maintenance program for street trees, said Morgan Tracy, a planner with the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Pruning, planting and removal costs fall mostly on the property owner. The city tends to be reactive when it comes to caring for trees in parks and other city property, he said.
The tree proposal would also place all tree rules into one new city code section that regulates when trees can be cut down and how they should be replaced. The proposal calls for a single point person for questions about trees, a 24-hour hotline and a new tree manual.
The estimated cost is between $1 million and $1.5 million.
The City Council has the final say on any new tree proposal. It could vote on this later in the year.