New Roots: We Live in a City That Cares About Trees

"I'm an advocate for trees," says Kasey Krouse, "that is, the right tree in the right place."

This is a kind of mantra for Krouse, as all the responsibility for managing and planting Knoxville's public trees rests on him.

Krouse's first day on the job as Knoxville's first-ever urban forester was December 3, 2012. He is essentially building the urban forestry program from scratch.

Krouse grew up hunting and fishing in the woods of Indiana, and majored in forestry at Purdue University, specializing in urban forestry, he says, because he likes trees and people.

In 2011, Krouse was working for Davey Resource Group, a private tree-care operation based in Ohio, when the city of Knoxville contracted Davey to do a tree inventory. A team from Davey assessed trees in Knoxville's neighborhoods, parks, and streets, putting together an urban tree management plan for the city. You can find the plan at Krouse worked specifically on hazard-tree remediation.

"When we did the inventory, we were surprised Knoxville didn't have an urban forester," says Krouse.

Krouse liked his job traveling all over the eastern U.S. assessing urban forests. But he didn't much like being away from his wife so often. And:

"I would write a lot of plans," Krouse says, "Sometimes those plans would get put on a shelf."

As Knoxville's urban forester, Krouse has the opportunity to remain in one community and see his plans through. It helps that Mayor Rogero's administration is especially proactive about trees, he says.

When Davey recommended hiring an urban forester, Knoxville's Tree Board presented the findings to City Council, which approved it, but did not want to spend more money. David Brace, director of Public Service, combined an out-going position in Parks and Recreation with an eliminated position in Public Service to come up with Krouse's salary. So the position was budget-neutral, and Krouse believes he will actually save the city money.

A major focus of his job is internal education—teaching city maintenance workers and contractors how to properly plant and manage trees, including good mulching techniques. It turns out, we've been maiming and killing our public trees for years by mulching them all wrong.

A wide, low mat of mulch pulled back from the trunk is good for a tree—it holds in moisture, cools the roots in the summer, and traps heat in the winter. But "volcano mulching," in which a cone of mulch is piled at the base of the trunk burying the root flare, is a widespread practice in Knoxville. This leads to decay of the cambium, makes the tree vulnerable to pests, and causes the formation of adventitious roots that girdle the tree—stunting its growth, and, sometimes, throttling it to death.

"It's so easy to prevent," Krouse says.

He's spent the last few months raking back the mulch from tree trunks and assessing the damage. Though it harms them, oaks tolerate volcano mulching. Maples and dogwoods, Knoxville's most common urban trees, do not.

The environmental and economic benefits of urban trees are indisputable facts, says Krouse. Trees reduce storm water run-off, improve water quality, improve air quality, reduce energy use, and increase property values. Businesses and tourists are attracted to areas with more trees.

Urban trees may have sociological benefits as well. Krouse cites studies referenced in the Davey tree plan that show areas with more tree canopy have lower crime rates, and stronger, healthier communities.

A skeptic might argue that areas with more tree canopy are wealthier, more well-groomed parts of town anyway. But wouldn't it be interesting to see if planting and properly maintaining trees in barren parts of town reduced crime rates, increased economic opportunities, and raised home prices?

Krouse says it's not his job to speculate, he's just the tree manager.

But he does say, "One of the goals of mine is to increase canopy coverage in the city, determining through a systematic approach the areas most in need."

One new-plantings project is choosing the street trees for the soon-to-be-revamped Cumberland Avenue Corridor. He is considering large trees like elm, ginko, and hornbeam and some smaller trees like yellow wood and trident maple. Krouse will decide where to place them in the landscape, allowing for canopy size, root structure, and a host of other factors.

He says he wants to make sure to plant "the right tree in the right place."