Where Are Ann Arbor’s Trees?

Tree inventory underway
Tree gets measured Ann Arbor

That stick is no ordinary ruler. It's called a Biltmore stick, and has a scale that allows the user to sight the outside limits of a tree's diameter from a single point of view.

On Thursday near 7th and Madison streets, The Chronicle noticed a guy wearing a bright yellow vest with electronic gear and some sort of measuring stick. We had a pretty good idea what it was about, having recently reported on city council’s approval of a $243,500 contract with Davey Resource Group for a GIS-based inventory of trees in the public right-of-way as well as in parks.

Marcia Higgins, one of two councilmembers for Ward 4, had cast the lone vote against the contract, and had explained at Sunday night caucus two weeks later that she would prefer to see the money for the project, which is coming out of the storm water fund, spent directly on storm water.  She also wondered if the work could be completed more cost-effectively as a Boy Scout service project.

It’s not Boy Scouts who are doing the work, but rather four guys from Davey Resource Group.  One of them is Wes, the guy in the yellow vest, who chatted with us as he took down a couple of trees’ vital statistics: height, trunk diameter, type (genus and species), condition, and location.

Early in the conversation, we asked him what kind of tree he was recording at the moment, and he said he figured it was a sugar maple, “but it looks a little different from the sugar maples I’m used to seeing back east.” In this case, “back east” means New Hampshire, where he lives.

Measuring Tree Height

Wes uses a clinometer to get a bead on the height of the trees. The device measures angles, and the rest is the magic of geometry.

He was flown in on Tuesday, just two days earlier, and he figures the four-man crew, which is working Monday-Saturday from around 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., will need a couple months to complete the inventory of around 60,000 trees. The pace of around 260 trees a day that Wes reported would take around 60 working days.

Not all of the four tree guys who are working on the project came from outside the region.  For example, the project manager drove up from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, which means the crew has a vehicle to drive people from their hotel out by Briarwood Mall to their job site for the day. On Thursday Wes was working 7th Street from north to south and needed to get to Pauline.

In Wes’ tool kit, along with the GPS unit (for precise location information) and tablet-style computer, were two old-school analog devices: a Biltmore stick for estimating tree diameter and a clinometer for measuring height. Through the power of applied geometry, they’re not just guessing those stats. Wes wasn’t just guessing about that sugar maple, either. He’s an ISA-certified arborist, and has been working in the field for around 10 years.

Why is the city of Ann Arbor conducting a tree inventory, and why is it being paid for out of the storm water fund? The 1994 inventory was based on street addresses, and a pilot attempt to geocode that inventory to make it compatible with the city’s GIS system proved not to be cost-effective. In addition, the arrival of the emerald ash borer in 2002 meant that city staff focused on removal of dead and dying ash trees, which diverted resources from the ongoing update of the inventory. The 1994 inventory did not include park trees like the current project does.

As for the rationale for using storm water monies to pay for the tree inventory, there’s a connection between trees and storm water runoff. A mature deciduous tree uses up an average of 625 gallons of water per year, preventing that amount of water from  entering the storm water system.

So over the next couple of months, if readers spot guys in yellow vests and GPS units sticking out of their backpacks who are taking a really close look at a tree, one of them is Wes. Here’s a question that Wes, the tree guy from New Hampshire, asked The Chronicle: “What’s a can’t-miss thing to see in Ann Arbor?” Readers might want to convey their own answers directly to Wes, or perhaps in a comment below.


  1. By Bob Martel
    February 13, 2009 at 9:46 am | permalink

    What a colossal waste of money! What action is going to be taken based on the information that is being collected? $240k probably represents the salary of 4 to 5 average City employees for a year. I wonder how those FTE’s will feel after making the ultimate sacrifice (losing their jobs) so the tree survey can be completed and sit on someone’s shelf.

  2. February 13, 2009 at 10:18 am | permalink

    I wish more cities had the information that Ann Arbor is getting from this survey. It may sound benign right now, but when pests such as emerald ash borer come through the state (and it won’t be the last), the amount of $$ that get spent dealing with it is far more than the investment into a tree inventory. I’m constantly asked by legislators, members of the media, researchers and the public how many trees EAB has decimated and how this translates into dollars spent, and I can’t give them a good answer, because many communities have no idea how many ash trees they have — or any other species of tree. This info will be very valuable when figuring out the economics of replacing or taking out trees, what species have worked and what doesn’t, etc. Trees are a valuable asset to communities and to us all. Good job, Ann Arbor!

  3. February 13, 2009 at 10:27 am | permalink

    well, there’s no reason for the tree inventory to sit on someone’s shelf when it could be mashed up with google maps. I hope the city will release the electronic data when this is done.

    It does seem like there could be a more cost-efficient way of doing this. You could buy 10 kits of stuff like the one Wes has in his backpack and loan them out to citizens.

  4. By Karen Sidney
    February 13, 2009 at 10:43 am | permalink

    According to the RFP for this project on the state MITN website (use link from the purchasing page of the city website) the purpose is to inventory, inspect and provide maintenance recommendations for trees in the city right of way (street trees). One wonders what the city forester does. The city has a list of addresses for trees removed by the Ash Borer contractors that could be used for replanting decisions. If they’ve lost it, I can give them a replacement copy I got through FOIA.

    The same RFP includes a GIS inventory of street signs, lights, signals and parking meters. There is also a project to put all the storm water catch basins in the GIS system.

  5. By Kris
    February 13, 2009 at 12:24 pm | permalink

    How disappointing that this couldn’t be done by someone local for much less money. After all these guys have not only salaries, but also travel and expenses!

    It would seem the City put little to no thought into doing this cost effectively… no huge shock there!

  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 13, 2009 at 12:41 pm | permalink

    This is OBSCENE–having someone FLY in from New Hampshire when Michigan unemployment in the state is 10% plus.

    Yes, let’s BUY LOCAL…

    Kudos to Marcia Higgins, my council rep, for voting NO. So this is why my water bill keeps skyrocketing….

  7. February 13, 2009 at 12:56 pm | permalink

    This is going to be a really cool data set when it’s done, and I’m looking forward to the public release of this public data.

  8. February 14, 2009 at 10:12 am | permalink

    One has to wonder how the city can easily find $1/4M in stormwater “fee/tax” to do a tree inventory yet not have the funds to do a simple watershed study requested by virtually all of the neighborhood groups on the west side and, recommended by local developers and the MDEQ.

    This in a watershed with 800-1,500 homes and businesses at great risk of flood inundation, with a health and economic impact unmatched in the community.

    They plan to use the study to help on spending much more stormwater funds on tree planting.

    Wonders will never cease.

  9. By mr dairy
    February 14, 2009 at 10:45 am | permalink

    I wonder how many replacement trees $245k would buy? How many more gallons of water could be kept from going down the drain if trees were planted instead of GIS-ed?

    And that report will probably end up on a shelf where many other consultant studies end up in city hall.

    Other than the gee whiz factor of being able to look at a “cool data set” and google map of street trees online this is an exercise in bureaucratic waste… not to mention outsourcing work that could be done by city staff.

    At its root (get it?) this is little more than part of Roger Frasers budgetary shell game.

  10. February 14, 2009 at 4:05 pm | permalink

    Knowing “where we are” is the first analytical step that must be accomplished before we can make a sensible plan for “where we want to be”. Too bad however that we couldn’t get the young adults in our science class to conduct the surveys.

  11. February 14, 2009 at 4:19 pm | permalink

    I know (from talking to someone at Farmers Market today) that the Woody Plants class at the U of M was involved in some way

    Link to Woody Plants

    There’s 160 species in the area, and it takes a whole semester (including walks through bogs) to learn how to accurately identify them all.

  12. By Steve Bean
    February 15, 2009 at 1:41 am | permalink

    I hope Marcia will reconsider the appropriateness of asking children to do adult work.

    The city asks much of volunteers for appropriate tasks. (In that vein, have we set the example we ask of others?) In contrast, the survey work is professional in nature, and those who are trained to do it deserve to be paid for their knowledge and skill.

    I suspect that the city forester is still catching up on the backlog of tree maintenance needs that resulted from the necessary attention given to the dead and dying ash trees in recent years and doesn’t have the eight person-months available in her schedule.

    Contempt won’t improve anything about this situation (or any other.)

  13. By Dan Moerman
    February 15, 2009 at 8:58 am | permalink

    My gosh. What a bunch of nastyness. “Colossal waste of money,” use volunteers instead, repeating what’s already been done (a decade ago, before the ash borer), “disappointing” because it’s not being done locally, “OBSCENE,” “Wonders will never cease,” and a “shell game.” My my. This from residents of tree city.

    Recall that you are supposed to “Be Generous.” But then again, I have learned something from this: there is a lot of spite in Ann Arbor. Maybe a gallon of spite per tree?

  14. By mr dairy
    February 15, 2009 at 10:30 am | permalink

    Dan, I’m “generous” to the city to the tune of more than $3000 annually. Add the costs of repairing the sidewalks in front of my home… that the city owns, the cost of digging up my front yard when the utilities dept curb box, owned by the city, fails, paying for a new city hall we don’t need, Farmers Market “improvements”… the “Y” fiasco

    Where is it written that I’m supposed to “Be Generous” to a bureaucracy that wastes our money at every turn.

    Maybe I’ll feel more generous when there’s some accountability at 100 N Fifth Avenue.

    The “City Forester” as an actual city position of any consequence is an urban myth since the retirement of Paul Bairley.

  15. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 17, 2009 at 10:55 am | permalink

    My OBSCENE comments were directed at flying in an out-of-town company to do the inventory at the stated cost. No one seems to be willing to address that question. As someone who lives in a neighborhood that had to have the city get an outside grant to replace the hundreds of ash trees, this outlay of tax dollars all flowing outside of the city is something I think is wrong.

  16. By Marvin Face
    February 17, 2009 at 4:06 pm | permalink

    Alan, I don’t know the specifics of this case but typically the city will put something like this out for competitive bid. The City likely approved the low bid by this company. I am sure there were local companies that bid but perhaps they were all higher. By how much, I don’t know.

    The question becomes: Do you want local workers and how much of a premium are you willing to pay for that? For now it seems that flying in workers and putting them up in hotel rooms for extended periods of time is less expensive than having locals do the job.

  17. February 17, 2009 at 4:33 pm | permalink

    I think it is fair to wonder whether the city could have accomplished this task with local employees and locally purchased equipment for < $243K, but, it might (would) have taken more time to plan and execute, it might have required hiring someone with the expertise to direct and train the workers, and it might have been difficult to find the right people for temporary jobs.

    The flaw in the process here is that when you bid something like this out locally, it’s not likely that anyone’s going to already going to have multiple sets of the tested equipment kit that Dave describes in the OP, plus a ready action plan and track record for doing projects exactly like one. That’s why consultants get this sort of job.

    There should probably be an intermediate step in the purchase process that is not “in-house” and is not “contract out”, it is “can we develop this capability here in a reasonable time frame?” Maybe there already is something like that.

  18. By mr dairy
    February 17, 2009 at 6:21 pm | permalink

    City staff, including Parks, Rec and Forestry, (local folks, community members and Michiganians all) have been gutted, downsized, eliminated, contracted out, whatever you want to call it, since Fraser and McCormick came to town.

    Back when some folks thought it was a good thing to make government leaner (and meaner… much meaner)… now we end up spending local dollars to pay not so local workers (Davey) and corporations (like the stinky Waste Management contract) for work that local people could and should be doing.

    Indeed we might, and I mean might/maybe/perhaps or perhaps not, pay a premium to employ local folks to perform skilled and semi skilled city labor, it’s different in these times and means so much more to us now. But since those people and their work has now been outsourced and the city no longer has the skilled employees or the resources, it seems that we have no choice but to go elsewhere for labor and ship those dollars out of the region.

    Just like those who said 9/11 and the economic meltdown of this new century couldn’t have been predicted, who could have predicted that if we downsized government, got rid of local workers who made a decent wage and who put that money back into the local economy, that we would end up flying in folks from New Hampshire to GIS our trees or buying expensive software (Trakit) from a California company instead of software from a company (BS&A) in Okemos MI?

    For sure, not me!