In Lincoln Park, just south of Bridge Street on the North side of Grand Rapids, a mighty Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) spreads its branches nearly 200 feet wide, shading the grass, providing food and shelter for squirrels, and sending deep roots into the soil below. This oak, nicknamed “Charlie” by nominator ecologist Jesse Lincoln, was just dedicated as the 2016 Mayor’s Tree of the Year, a program launched in 2011 to encourage citizen awareness and care of the Grand Rapids tree canopy.
Throughout the month of May, the Urban Forest Project challenged citizens to take a picture of their favorite tree in Grand Rapids. Participants then submitted their photos along with a short description of why they chose the tree to the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project Facebook page. This year, Lincoln’s Chinquapin Oak won the competition, closely followed by nominations of a purple-leaf beech and another massive oak of a different species.
“With a diameter of 55.5 inches you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger tree on the West side, not counting cottonwoods,” Lincoln wrote in his description of the unique Oak. Lincoln, who works as an ecologist for the state of Michigan, has gauged the age of large trees like this before—for this oak, he estimates it’s between 150-300 years old and that it was likely growing around the time the first European settlers arrived in Grand Rapids.
Trees like Charlie offer a glimpse back into the history of place—they stand as a reminder that Grand Rapids was not always the industrialized landscape it is today. But that’s not the only reason the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project hopes the community becomes interested in their local trees—large trees like this also serve an important part in maintaining the health of the watershed.
“Trees are amazing at taking in lots of water and utilizing it for photosynthesis. They are constantly moving water through transpiration,” said Margaret Studer, the Director of the Urban Forest Project, a collaborative effort between Friends of Grand Rapids Parks and the City of Grand Rapids to promote tree canopy and citizen engagement with forestry in Grand Rapids. “Trees play a huge role in the absorption of water, and can take water that would normally fall on your roof or shed.”
Rather than collecting pollutants on roadways and rushing quickly off a concrete surface into the Grand River or one of its tributaries, rainwater that falls on or near a tree can be taken up by the tree’s roots. Once the water enters the tree, it can be used by the tree to create cellulose, or it can be transpired—or released back into the air—through the tree’s leaves. Both methods help purify water and keep it from rushing quickly into a waterway, effectively preventing erosion and promoting a slower, healthier transfer of water across a watershed.
Though one individual tree may not have a substantial impact on the watershed as a whole, a large city-wide tree canopy can have a huge collective impact. According to the American Forests, the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country, for every five percent of tree canopy added to a watershed, stormwater runoff is reduced by 2%.
Increasing the tree canopy is one of the main goals of the Urban Forest Project. As of now, Grand Rapids’ tree canopy stands at a moderate 34.6 percent. But through community efforts and the project’s mini-grant program, the Urban Forest Project, in conjunction with the City of Grand Rapids Urban Forestry Committee, hopes to increase the Grand Rapids tree canopy to 40 percent.
You can get involved with the Urban Forest Projects’ efforts by participating in one of their community events, or you can sign up to become a certified citizen forester. Take a look at the Urban Forest Project calendar and sign up for an event, get involved, and help keep the Grand River watershed thriving.