What’s the Value of that Tree? - Using Tree Tags To Raise Awareness In Kansas City

November-December 2009

A HEALTHY URBAN FOREST is a great asset to any community, providing stormwater interception, energy savings, pollution reduction, carbon sequestration and social benefits. Promoting these positive attributes of urban trees has been going on for a long time. Unfortunately, for many years we simply had to say ‘Tree are good’ without having hard numbers to document the statement. Thanks to solid research however, many of the benefits of trees can now be documented and some can even have a dollar value calculated for them. The need to get that information out to the general public, but especially to those who make decisions related to trees and budgets, such as mayors, city councils, city staff and others, can be challenging given all the other competing needs in cities. Money for urban tree management is always tight, in part because trees are often seen as a nice extra rather than being understood as cost-effective infrastructure. The tree management budget is therefore often cut when times are tough. If tree benefits are truly understood, it is hoped that adequate budgets will follow.

To start addressing this need, an air quality planner at the Mid-America Regional Council, a Kansas City regional planning organization, suggested decorating trees with price tags for Arbor Day 2008. Inspired by similar tags from an event in Minnesota, each tag would show the value of the benefits that tree potentially could provide to the city over its lifetime.

A committee was formed, pulling together urban forestry interests from around the metro – the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), Kansas Forest Service (KFS), Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), and Heartland Tree Alliance (HTA), a program of a local environmental non-profit called Bridging The Gap.
The tags were designed to be simple and understood easily at a glance. The end result was a tag that says, “This Tree Pays Us Back $xxxx In Potential Lifetime Benefits. For more information, visit www.heartlandtreealliance.org.“

Sharing Responsibilities
Each organization helped as it was able. MARC personnel calculated the potential tree benefit values, did the graphic design for the tag, arranged for the sign company to make the tags, and put out the press releases. MDC and KFS contacted cities, secured permission to put up tags, as well as arranged for the labour to do it whenever possible, and helped distribute the price tags. HTA took over much of this work in 2009, the second year of the project. MDC also did a number of the TV and newspaper interviews. MDC, KFS and MARC shared responsibility for costs. The Heartland Tree Alliance provided information on tree benefits on its website as well as more information about the tree tags.

Refining the Concept
The idea for the tags came from Minnesota, but several changes were made for the Kansas City initiative. Minnesota’s effort was a one day affair at the state capitol for Arbor Day. Their tags were made of foam core board with paper text glued on. In Kansas City, we wanted the tags to be a longer term effort – proposed to be about one week – so the tags had to be sturdy enough to withstand rain and wind.
Minnesota calculated the benefits of each tree up to that point in its life; thus a 40 year-old tree had a benefit based on 40 years. We decided to use the potential lifetime benefit since we knew several tags would have to go on newly planted trees that have very low benefits returned to date. So, for example, our tag for a two inch bur oak shows the potential benefits over a 200 year life span instead of just the first few years of life.

Early April was targeted for when the tags should go up to coincide with Arbor Day celebrations. Because the Kansas City region covers two states and numerous municipalities, Arbor Day celebrations occur throughout the month of April. Cities were asked to put the tags up by Missouri’s Arbor Day, the last Friday in April, and leave them up for a week. This was to maximize media coverage at the start of the month before all the other spring events started. Almost all cities ended up leaving the price tags for the entire month of April.

The Project in Action
Tags went in a variety of locations around the cities to maximize visibility. Cities had anywhere from one to six locations with about 4-6 tags at each site for visual impact. There were some locations with fewer tags – just one in some cases. Front doors of city halls were targeted to reach mayors, city council members, active citizens, and other decision makers. Community centres, busy city parks and busy streets were also targeted. Street tree locations had to be close to or at stop lights (depending on how much traffic backed up at the light) where there would be a “captive” audience stopped or going slowly enough to read the tags.

Once the tags were up, requests came in from other cities and schools. One city council member contacted his parks director wanting to know why their city didn’t have any tags. (It turned out that we had not asked that particular city due to the limited numbers of tags created as well as time constraints.) We also had requests from high school students who had seen the tags around town and wanted some to put at their schools. A few of the extra tags were quickly provided.

Due to limited budget, in the first year it was decided to make 100 tags. Total cost was about $450 including the rope used to attach the tags to the trees. Locations were found for about 90 of them in eight different cities. Others were used by state urban foresters and other educators as visual aids at Arbor Day and various spring events to talk about the benefits of trees. Having a mayor or council representative hold up a tree tag for a photo op or as part of an Arbor Day program is good PR and they aren’t too likely to forget that trees provide valuable benefits.

In 2009, about 140 tags were placed in 15 cities. To give the effort a new twist in the second year, a pin oak tree in a large, heavily used park in Kansas City, MO, received decorations in addition to a tag. A Twitter account was started for this tree to give a more personal touch to promoting tree benefits. “Penny Oak” continues to tweet thanks to the Heartland Tree Alliance.

We have also used the tags as a way to promote the trees with large mature sizes (oaks, maples, gingko, etc.) instead of trees that have a small mature size (redbud, crabapples, etc.) when there are no utility lines or other conflicts for large trees. Large growing trees provide much higher benefits over their lifetimes in addition to having longer life spans.

The tree benefit calculation is the key to the whole project. This was done by the air quality person at MARC, a skilled computer user, in consultation with state urban foresters (who are also ISA members). The basis for the calculations was i-Tree STRATUM (now i-Tree Streets). While the actual procedure was a bit different, the principle was to calculate the values of the annual benefits returned by a tree for each year of its life and then add all those individual annual benefits up to get the grand total displayed on the tag.
Tree benefits vary by species so this had to be done for each species being tagged. The National Tree Benefit Calculator on the Davey Tree Experts website, one of the partners in the development of i-Tree, now makes this process easier for people to do (http://www.davey.com/cms/cus/f94711556cbd4c7b/treecalculator.html ). Unfortunately, we did not have this available to us. We assumed each tree was in good/excellent condition. The potential lifespan for each species was estimated by the urban foresters.

Sign Basics
The tags were made of corrugated plastic, similar in construction to political yard signs. The size (18x24”)was determined by the largest size the sign company could provide cost-effectively. All the text and graphics, except for the tree benefit value, were printed on the tag by the sign company, using the MARC-designed tag. No logos or other promotion could go on the tags in order to avoid violating local ordinances concerning signage. Black and white printing proved to be both visually striking and more cost-effective than colour printing.

Some work had to be done after the signs were received from the sign company. The corners were cut off by volunteers using a paper cutter to give the “tag look.” Three holes were drilled through each tag – one through the printed “hole” and two in the lower corners. This made attaching the tag to the tree possible with clothesline-size rope, and also helped hold the tag steady in wind. The tree benefit value was written on each tag by hand using a large permanent marker.

Most cities have sign ordinances that prohibit signs of various sorts on public property. Since these “signs” were put up by the cities, they were exempt from the ordinances, or at least no one complained. In one city, the tags received a small city parks sticker on the front to let work crews know that they were approved by the city and were not to be taken down.

Vandalism was very minor. Only two tags over two years have been vandalized. One of these was defaced with a black marker and another was broken. Two tags were stolen. One homeowner adjoining one of the street trees complained about the tag. Other homeowners saw the tags and requested them for their yard trees. This is under discussion for the future but may not be possible due to various city regulations. The tags have held up well in the weather.

The tags have proven to be very durable, and most were re-used in 2009. The tree species is written in small print on the back of each tag as it is placed on the right tree.

Promotional Value
The tags have been highly successful in creating awareness of tree benefits and the project has been made an annual event. There was good TV and newspaper coverage both years. HTA website traffic went up considerably. Unfortunately, due to a computer glitch, the actually number of hits is not available.
Many thousands of people saw the tags, repeatedly in the cases of street trees, and remember seeing them even over a year later. They do not always recall what the tags were about, but they did make an impression. More importantly, many people did understand the tags and thus have been more vocal about supporting trees.

It’s not possible to document any political changes related to tree management or budgets, but we know the tags did raise awareness, including our target audience of political decision makers, and did make people thing about something they frequently take for granted – trees.

For more information, contact Heartland Tree Alliance Manager Bill Grotts at bill.grotts@bridgingthegap.org, 816-561-1087, ext. 110.

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