The man his coworkers know as "Tree" began his career making $200 a month in 1959 and has watched Kansas City's forestry service go from good to bad to worse due to downsizing and budget constraints. Since the 1960s, Roundtree has seen his department's staff dwindle from about forty workers to eight, who handle tree planting, pruning and removal requests on public property scattered about Kansas City's 350 square miles. Years of neglect have created a backlog of service requests as thick as a phone book, while the city's trees rot and die.
"We can't get qualified help," says Bryan Edwards, a seventeen-year veteran on the tree squad. "This is not something you do one morning. You can't wake up and be a tree trimmer. We are operating with the best we've got, but people don't understand what it takes to do this job."
According to Charles Knight, the city forester hired six years ago, lack of care and attention are robbing the city of its beauty.
"We have an overmature urban forest," Knight says. "A lot of the old [trees] haven't been taken down, and more are dying on the average than in an active young forest. We have to recover from years of negligence."
Knight's "Five-Year Urban Forestry Recovery and Management Plan for Kansas City" was appended in March to detail the need for better response to citizen requests for tree service. Among Knight's current and long-term objectives are purchasing new tree-trimming trucks and equipment, streamlining his three-man crews to two-man crews, hiring more qualified trimmers and personnel, providing continuing education for his workers, raising his department's salary levels and revamping the list of trees being planted around Kansas City. The biggest change? Lobbying the city to increase his department's budget to about $9 million dollars. Increasing his department's salary base, Knight says, will allow him to attract quality personnel. He says Kansas City ranks near the bottom in salaries for tree trimmers ($32,100 average) compared with other major cities.
When Knight arrived in Kansas City from a park superintendent's position in Sterling, Colorado, the departmental budget was less than $1 million. He already has persuaded city hall to increase funding to more than $2.3 million, including annual increases of $328,000 four years ago and $500,000 two years ago. And Knight managed to get the council to approve a $300,000 increase for the upcoming year. Every year, Kansas City's forestry operation spends on average $4.72 per tree. That ranks far below spending in Milwaukee ($50 each year per tree), Chicago ($33.56), Ann Arbor, Michigan ($26.68), Cleveland ($21.30) and Modesto, California ($21.06). According to Knight's survey, the Wichita forestry operation spends about $18.42 per tree, putting Kansas City to shame.
Joe Serviss, Mayor Kay Barnes' chief of staff, says Knight's plan is a good one. "We want to implement it. Kansas City is a city of trees, and trees are an asset to our infrastructure. We need to give them as much attention as they deserve -- the attention they haven't gotten."
But City Councilman Paul Danaher doubts Knight will get his $9 million. "It's reasonable from his perspective. He should make that kind of request," Danaher says. "But I seriously don't think it will happen. I would love to do it, but I don't think it's realistic with what we have [in the budget]."
Serviss says Barnes is committed to improved tree service and is considering ways to increase the budget through private funding. But with the backlog standing at eighteen months (down from a five-year backlog when Knight took over), a decade might pass before Knight can put his department in "proactive" mode, which would include shortening trees' pruning cycle from once every forty years to once every seven years.
A properly maintained forest can benefit Kansas City to the tune of $74.75 million annually, according to Knight's study, which attaches dollar values to shaded homes (lower cooling costs), wind control (reduced heating costs), air quality and pollution reduction, reduced water run-off and erosion control. Knight also argues that healthy trees help reduce stress in humans.
He has ordered new equipment that will allow two-man crews to prune trees by combining chipper trucks and cherry pickers. "Right now, we are way below equipment standards," Knight says.
But of all of Knight's changes, tree planting likely will have the biggest long-term effect. He wants to plant 6,800 trees a year around the city. Knight wants to plant redbuds, ginkgoes, golden rain trees, ashes, maples, oaks, birches and ornamental plums evenly across the city for a diverse urban forest of the future.
"The big step has been us responding to citizens' requests," he says. "And now we want to be proactive."