Urban Forestry Frequently Asked Questions

Urban trees are vital to the quality of our lives. They shade our streets, enhance the appearance and value of our homes, and improve the environment — just a few examples of the many significant benefits of urban trees.

Having trees in our landscapes is not as simple as planting and watching them grow. Urban trees require plenty of consideration and care for good health and safety. Read on for detailed information in urban tree care and frequently asked questions.

Q. What is Urban and Community Forestry?

A. Urban forestry is defined as the art and science of managing of trees and related natural resources in populated areas, from the inner city to the developing urban fringe and within small communities. Community forestry is an approach to management that engages residents in the planting and care of trees and related natural resources. For more information, visit What Is Urban Forestry? A Quick 101 – American Forests.

Q. How can I get involved with Urban Forestry?

A. The most effective way to participate in Urban Forestry is through our Neighborhood Tree Stewards program. Urban Forestry partners with arboriculture specialists that volunteer to teach citizens about proper tree care techniques, tree identification, the benefits of trees, and other urban forestry topics. Neighborhood Stewards, with support from Urban Forestry staff, work on community tree projects such as neighborhood tree plantings, tree inventories and tree care events to help enhance and maintain the City’s urban forest.

Q. What is the Urban Forestry Commission? Which Commissioner is the liaison to my neighborhood?

A. The seven members of the Urban Forestry Commission are citizens appointed by City Council. The Commission advises City Council on Urban Forestry policy and administers various outreach and education programs. Each neighborhood association is assigned an Urban Forestry Commission liaison. Click here to find out who your liaison is.

Q. What is the Evergreen Arboretum?

A. Dedicated in 1978 and located at the east end of Officer’s Row, the Evergreen Arboretum was conceived as a way to honor the special people in our lives. For a minimum contribution, the name of your loved one will be etched in granite near the arboretum gazebo for future generations to observe. The money raised through the Evergreen Arboretum is used for tree planting and landscaping throughout the city. For more information, call Vancouver Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services at 360-487-8311.

Benefits of Trees

Q. How do trees increase neighborhood livability?

A. Trees improve quality of life by (among other things) improving air and water quality, reducing stormwater runoff, reducing traffic speeds, providing shade, and providing wildlife habit. Trees also dramatically increase property values and help foster a sense of community.

Q. What do trees have to do with water/air quality?

A. The average tree can absorb ten pounds of pollutants and 26 pounds of carbon dioxide each year, while producing approximately 260 pounds of oxygen per year (two trees provide enough oxygen to sustain a human being). A mature tree will intercept an average of 760 gallons of rainfall a year, reducing flooding and pollution from runoff while fostering groundwater recharge. Trees also stabilize soils, which reduces erosion. View the Healthy Trees, Healthy Watersheds poster and the Benefits of Trees poster for more information on how urban trees improve air and water quality in our communities.

Vancouver Tree Regulations

Q. Who is responsible for maintenance/removal of street trees?

A. As in most of the Pacific Northwest, the adjacent property owner is responsible for maintenance and removal of street trees in the City of Vancouver. Adjacent property owners are required to apply for and secure a Tree Permit from the City before beginning any work. Please email Urban Forestry or call 360-487-8332 and we will schedule a site inspection.

Q. Do I need a permit?

A. There are two kinds of permits required for trees in the City of Vancouver: one for street trees and one for private trees. Failure to obtain a permit before starting work will result in a violation and monetary fines, so check for appropriate permits before removing any tree.

Q. Why can’t I remove my tree?

A. Removal is one option in Urban Forestry management strategies; however, we want to exhaust all other management strategies first before removing any mature trees. It only takes a minute to improperly prune or remove a tree and a lifetime to grow one. This is why it is imperative to protect and preserve mature trees from unnecessary removals. Removal will not be granted if a tree does not meet the criteria for removal as defined in the Tree Conservation Ordinance or the Street Tree Ordinance of the Vancouver Municipal Code.

Q. Can I trim the branches off a neighbor’s tree that overhang my property?

A. Always be a good neighbor and work with your neighbors if you have any issues with their trees. You have the right to trim tree branches up to the property line as long as you do not harm the health or the structure of your neighbors tree. You may not go onto the neighbor’s property or destroy the tree itself. Trees are considered property and a person who intentionally injures someone else’s tree is liable to the owner for property damage.

Q. What height should street trees be pruned to so that branches do not block the street or sidewalk?

A. Trees should be pruned to allow a 8ft clearance above the sidewalk and a 14ft clearance above the street. Keep in mind this is the pruned height at the trees maturity; young trees cannot tolerate drastic pruning to allow this clearance. To train your young trees or properly prune back your mature trees, always follow proper pruning guidelines.

Proper Tree Care

Q. What is an ISA Certified Arborist? Why would I need to hire one?

A. Certified arborists are individuals who have achieved a level of knowledge in the art and science of tree care through at least three years of professional experience and have passed a comprehensive examination administered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). By choosing an ISA Certified Arborist you have ensured that the persons performing the work in your landscape will adhere to the latest professional standards.

Q. Can Urban Forestry recommend an Arborist?

A. Here is a list of arborists that have met our minimum qualifications. Also, here is a link to questions to ask when hiring an arborist. You can also visit the Pacific Northwest ISA website. Always hire an ISA Certified Arborist and stay away from companies that advertise or recommend “topping”. Professional arborists do not recommend topping because it is not an effective long-term method of reducing crown height, it is more expensive in the long run, creates hazards, and makes the neighborhood look bad.

Q. Why is topping bad?

A. The practice of “topping” (the indiscriminate cutting of tree branches to stubs or lateral branches that are not large enough to assume the terminal role) is not a proper pruning technique. Topping stresses the tree by reducing leaf surface area, and thus the tree’s ability to produce food. The tree responds by vigorously re-sprouting with weakly attached branches. These branches later become hazards and increase future maintenance costs.

Ultimately, topping causes the tree to decline or even die, creates the need for more pruning, and is very unsightly. Professional arborists do not recommend topping for several reasons: it is not effective as a crown height reduction method; it is expensive because it must be redone frequently; it is dangerous as the new growth is vigorous and weakly attached; and it makes the neighborhood look bad.

It only takes a minute to improperly prune or remove a tree and a lifetime to grow one. This is why it is imperative to preserve and properly care for mature trees. Please do not allow your trees to be topped. Follow proper pruning guidelines or contact a professional arborist for recommendations on how to correct this practice. Visit the Trees Are Good website for more information.

Q. What is the best way to ensure newly planted trees will survive?

A. Trees usually take at least three years to get established, which means they need some care during this time period. In the absence of regular rainfall (during the summer months and winter droughts), a newly planted tree will need about 10 gallons of water per week. This can be achieved by using 5 gallon buckets or placing your hose at a very low volume (a trickle) at the base of the tree for a couple of hours. Also, it is important to make sure that there is enough mulch around the base of the tree. You should try to have about 3-4 inches of mulch for at least a 2 foot radius around the base of the tree; add more mulch as it decomposes to maintain the proper depth; keep the mulch two inches away from the trunk of the tree so that it does not cause the base of the trunk to rot. Mulch provides nutrients, suppresses weeds and, most importantly, acts as a “moisture trap,” keeping the soil beneath it moist.

Q. Should I fertilize newly planted trees?

A. Generally, no. Fertilization stimulates new foliar growth, this growth is drawn from the tree’s stored carbohydrate reserves. A newly planted tree generally loses up to 90% of its root system, which limits the reserves from which it can draw. The first priority for a young tree is to establish a functional root system; fertilizing does not encourage root development. Root development is encouraged by properly watering the tree for the first 3 years (10 gallons per week), and proper mulching. If you do decide to fertilize, use a slow-release fertilizer only.

Q. Can we rake our leaves into the street? Does the city come by and pick them up?

A. Property owners are responsible for cleaning up leaves from their own property, including sidewalks and planting strips. When mixed with rain, leaves in the street can quickly clog stormwater drains resulting in standing water and flooding. Keep leaves out of streets and storm drains by recycling them in your yard debris cart or using them as mulch in your yard. Clark County residents receive a coupon in your neighborhood newsletter to drop off leaves for free at various locations. If you didn’t receive the coupon, visit the Garbage and Recyling page.

Tree Planting

Q. I would like to plant a tree. Which species should I choose?

A. Proper tree selection depends on many factors. First, you should consider where the tree will be located. If the tree will be in your yard, these tree selection guidelines will help you determine the best type and location of tree for your landscape. Urban Forestry has also developed a Street Tree Selection Guide to help you select an appropriate street tree; for street trees, factors such as planting strip width and presence of overhead utility lines are important considerations.

Q. I would like to plant a street tree in front of my house. What steps need to be taken?

A. Before you plant a street tree, email Urban Forestry and we will inspect your site, provide you with a list of appropriate tree species for site conditions (planting strip width, presence of overhead utilities, etc.), and mark the curb where the tree(s) should be planted. Before you begin to plant the tree always call 360-696-4848 before you dig to check for underground utilities.

Q. How do I become involved in a neighborhood tree planting?

A. The easiest way to become involved in a neighborhood tree planting is to contact Friends of Trees. Vancouver Urban Forestry has partnered with Friends of Trees to encourage community participation in stewardship of the urban forest, and to keep the price of tree installation low while providing high quality trees and planting support. Participating in the Neighborhood Tree Steward Application Form is also a great way to come in contact with other tree lovers and work directly with the Urban Forestry staff on the development of a neighborhood tree planting.

Q. What is Friends of Trees?

A. Friends of Trees is a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring community stewardship of our urban forest by bringing people in the Portland-Vancouver area together to plant, care for and learn about city trees. Through its grassroots efforts, Friends of Trees forms partnerships with local governments and businesses, and recruits and trains volunteers to keep our urban forest flourishing. For more information contact Friends of Trees.

Q. My neighborhood would like to do a tree planting project. How can we get funding for this?

A. The Vancouver Watersheds Alliance has a small grant program for funding neighborhood improvement projects such as tree plantings. Another way to fund a tree planting project is to ask local business for sponsorships. The Urban Forestry program also has a list of other grant opportunities that may apply to your project; call 360-487-8308 for more information.

Q. I would like to plant a tree to honor a loved one. Can Vancouver Urban Forestry help?

A. The City of Vancouver honors special persons or events through its Witness Tree program. The Witness Tree Program offers a unique way to honor a loved one or remember an event by adopting an existing tree or planting a new one. A catalog of Witness Trees will be kept on the Witness Tree Register so that future generations can find information about your particular tree and the person it honors.

Concerns with Trees

Q. I have been noticing brown or dying trees around some parts of Vancouver. What’s going on?

A. The appearance of dead branches, dead tops, or dead trees can be alarming. Vancouver Urban Forestry has been contacted by several concerned citizens regarding Douglas Fir, pine and birch tree decline in late summer; this is usually associated with drought/water stress. Our extended summer dry period can be tough on plants. Under water stress, plants are more susceptible to beetles and borers, which seek out and thrive on stressed plants. Healthy vigorous plants can withstand some insects and have natural defense mechanisms such as pitch and sap to reduce insect populations.

The best defense is to keep your plants healthy by:

  • Following proper tree care by pruning properly and not topping trees, which stresses them and creates hazards.
  • Avoiding impacts to the roots such as digging or building up soil around the roots, and compacting the root zone, such as driving over it. Remember, the root zone extends far beyond the trunk of the tree.
  • Applying mulch to maintain soil moisture and nutrient cycling.
  • Providing trees with long, deep watering applied slowly during extended dry periods.

If your tree is showing signs of distress:

Healthy trees benefit us as a community and as individuals by reducing stormwater runoff, decreasing erosion, improving air quality, providing wildlife habitat, increasing property values, beautifying our neighborhoods, and enhancing our overall quality of life. The City of Vancouver values the many ways that healthy trees benefit us as a community, and as individuals and we recognize that neighbors, businesses, and other property owners are important partners with us in caring for trees. Planting the right tree in the right place and giving it the right care and pruning make all the difference to ensuring a healthy urban forest today and for generations to come. It only takes a minute to improperly prune or remove a tree but a lifetime to grow one.

The City of Vancouver is committed to the continued protection and enhancement of the urban forest as part of our region’s valuable natural resources. Vancouver is proud to have been recognized as a Tree City USA since 1989.

Q. Roots have damaged my sidewalk and curb, what can I do?

A. Tree roots can damage sidewalks and other physical infrastructure. However, this damage is a small price to pay for tree-lined streets. The average life span of a sidewalk is 20 years, while trees can live well over 40 years. This is why, for a long-term solution, we require trees to be retained and the sidewalk corrected. The best way to avoid these conflicts is to plant the most appropriate tree based on the width of your planting strip to minimize future infrastructure damage. Check the City’s Street Tree Selection Guide to select a tree species that is appropriate for the width of your planting strip.

If your sidewalk has started to buckle, for a short-term fix one solution is to apply an asphalt patch or grind down the sidewalk to smooth out any tripping hazards that may exist. If you have pavers and they have started to settle or shift, you can reset the pavers by adding more sand. Another solution is to remove the damaged sidewalk area, prune the tree roots and/or install root barriers, and then replace the sidewalk. Damage to sidewalks or curbs is not sufficient cause for removal of street trees. E-mail Urban Forestry for further assistance.

Q. I believe tree roots are clogging my sewer pipes. What can be done about this?

A. The intrusion of tree roots into sewage pipes is rarely the fault of the tree and indicates fractures and leaks in the pipes themselves. Root growth is initiated where the conditions allow, roots do not themselves break pipes. When roots are found to be growing in pipes, seasonal treatment with a root-inhibiting compound can help reduce or resolve the problem. In other cases, the pipes need to be professionally cleaned out with an auger. When these measures do not work, removal of the tree or replacement of the pipes may be warranted.

Q. How do I recognize hazardous situations in a tree?

A. Recognizing and evaluating hazardous tree situations should only be done by a qualified ISA Certified Arborist. If the tree is on private property, contact an ISA Certified Arborist for recommendations/inspection and always check for appropriate permits. If the tree in question is on city property or in the city right of way, email Urban Forestry and we’d be happy to respond to the situation.

Q. Why are there so many big trees in Vancouver? That doesn’t seem safe.

A. We live in the Pacific Northwest, where big trees are abundant. These large trees are native to the area and have been here a lot longer than we have – and survived plenty of storms! Large Douglas Firs, Oregon White Oaks, and pines are all important members of our ecosystem, and other plants and wildlife depend on them. So don’t be afraid of big trees – be afraid of losing them! As the iconic Ms. Fir said – “We live in the PNW. If you don’t like big trees, move to the desert.”

Native Vs. Invasive Plants and Plant Identification

Q. What trees and shrubs are native to Vancouver?

A. For a list of plants that are native to our region, check out this list of native trees and shrubs.

Q. What kind of tree is that in my landscape?

Q. What are the advantages of using native plants in my landscape?

A. Landscaping with native plants, or naturescaping, has many benefits for the homeowner and local environment. Native, or indigenous, plants are those species that existed locally before the arrival of European settlers. Since these plants thrived locally long before the arrival of garden hoes, fertilizer, herbicide and sprinkler systems; they are eminently suited to the local climate and environment. From a landscaping perspective, perhaps the greatest benefit of native plants is that they are naturally drought tolerant and thus do not require supplemental watering throughout the summer – this conserves water and saves money. Native plants also do not require fertilizer or pesticides to maintain, which means that less chemicals are released into the environment. Finally, native plants provide food and habitat for native birds, insects, and small mammals. Check out Naturescaping for Clean Rivers and WSU Extension Master Gardeners for more information.

Q. How can I tell if a tree is invasive?

A. We are fortunate to live in a region where so many trees and plants thrive. Unfortunately, some of these plants are not appropriate for our landscapes and cityscapes. For a brief list of invasive trees common in our community and treatment options, view the Guide to Invasive Trees webpage.

Q. Why should I remove English Ivy from my landscape?

A. English Ivy (Hedera helix) is an invasive species that is not native to this region. Because no native animals are adapted to eat English ivy’s foliage and native plants are not adapted to compete with ivy for space, water and nutrients, English ivy is able to grow out of control in our temperate climate. Ivy can grow into a dense mat covering the forest floor, creating “ivy deserts” where no other plants can reproduce. Ivy vines also grow into the canopy of mature trees where they prevent the tree from receiving adequate sunlight and break tree branches with their excessive weight.

Eventually, mature ivy can literally strangle and kill a large tree. Learn more about English ivy ecology and removal tips. English ivy seeds are dispersed by birds such as starlings, so if you must keep ivy in your landscape it is important to cut the flowers before the fruit is formed to prevent the ivy from spreading into other areas.