By Sam Prickett
National Arbor Day is always celebrated on the last Friday in April, but for the city of Mountain Brook, trees are a constant priority.
For more than two decades, the city has been designated a “Tree City USA” by the Arbor Day Foundation, an award that highlights the city’s commitment to tree care. It’s also received the foundation’s more prestigious “Growth Award” for more than10 years, placing it as one of Alabama’s tree-friendliest cities.
Don Cafaro, one of the city’s two senior arborists along with Michael T. Gill Jr., said Mountain Brook’s interest in maintaining its urban forest stretches back to the time before the area was a city at all.
“It’s a very beautiful place, and I think that goes back to the inception of the city, what it was before it was incorporated,” he said. “It was a getaway. It was built around the equestrian lifestyle … . There was a sense of minimal impact and being able to enjoy the environment. And you can see that mindset manifest in the layout of Mountain Brook, with larger estate lots and people trying to build and design in such a way that it would retain that nature and character.”
As a senior arborist for the city, maintaining Mountain Brook’s urban forest is Cafaro’s day-to-day job. That means “establishing and maintaining healthy, long-lived trees whose traits and growth habits fit and work in the environment and are attractive,” he said.
“You say, ‘What’s the best tree for this specific spot? I’ve got this much room,’” he said, highlighting a hypothetical spot on the public right-of-way. “It’s not in a park area, there’s a bunch of concrete around it, so there’s limited soil space. You’ve got vehicles parking on one side, cars going by on the other … . You’ve got to consider the growth habit and form of the tree. You don’t want it too low; you want to look at something that fits. Matching the species to the site is a big part of it.”
One of the most difficult aspects of that work, he said, can be accounting for the parts of the trees you don’t see – the roots. That means making sure there’s enough soil volume for new trees and making sure that existing ones don’t interfere with the city’s underground infrastructure.
“For some people, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “But as many times as not, what’s going on above ground is just a direct function of what’s below your feet, and a lot of people don’t think about that.”
Private Trees Count, Too
To fight that problem, Cafaro’s job includes an educational outreach component, one meant to help residents understand how to care for trees that are on their private property. Although the city’s arborists do not directly work on privately owned trees, they do provide arboreal advice to any resident who wants it, which Cafaro said is “pretty unique to Mountain Brook.”
“There are no extra fees or anything,” he said, comparing the role to that of a county extension agent.
“Traditionally in a rural setting, farmers or people with gardens might have pests or some disease or issue their plants are dealing with, and they can call an extension agent to come out and give them information, guidance, recommendations, whatever,” he said.
“For trees and to some degree a lot of other things, people can call me up when they’re having some kind of issue, or, especially around here, they say, ‘We’re fixing to remodel and I’ve got this huge old oak tree.’ People have a pretty heightened awareness of the potential damage that could be done by construction, so they’ll call me out there to ask what they should do to avoid damaging the tree,” he said.
That free consultation means that residents can get “purely objective” information from the city’s arborists before hiring a contractor to do the work, Cafaro said.
“I give them the most well-informed information I can give them and try to steer them in the right direction. That’s something that I think is one of the most valuable things that I do provide. Everybody who I ever do that for expresses the same thing: they’re glad they have somebody like that they can go to.”
Of course, Cafaro laughs, it is a tax-funded service.
“The residents around here pay handsomely, but it’s a tangible thing where they say, ‘I’m getting something. That’s my tax dollars at work,’” he said. “It’s one of those things that comes along every now and then that gives you a little encouragement.”
More Than a Plaque
Cafaro maintains that, while the annual Tree City USA certifications are representative of the city’s commitment to maintaining a healthy urban forest, the awards aren’t his main goal. The Arbor Day Foundation also provides Mountain Brook with the opportunity to interact with other, similarly minded cities.
“It’s part of a network,” Cafaro said. “It helps provide some commonality, even from communities that may otherwise never have occasion to interact or share knowledge and experience. It’s part of a larger network that I can say from experience is very valuable … . It’s an important component of the larger animal.”
But for Cafaro, the priority is on maintaining for residents the natural beauty that first drew people to Mountain Brook.
“It’s an affluent, well-educated population,” he continued. “Some of that explains the heightened awareness of the value of aesthetics and the value that adds to the property … . From an economic standpoint, it’s probably something that’s hard to state because it’s something that most people just take for granted. But you’ve got to steward that resource.”