Consider Risk

Plan Now, Save Later

Urban Forestry Toolkit

Change happens.  Be ready for it.

Fire. Flooding and drought. Climate change. Pests and disease. Invasive species. The threats to your urban forest are many and diverse. But there are five key principles to help you manage risk.

  1. Know your urban forest resource. A forest inventory will determine the extent and condition of your urban forest. This becomes your baseline for planning and management.
  2. Understand your human capital. Organize a network of experts, practitioners and volunteer organizations who can help determine the changes occurring in your urban forest, how best to respond, and mobilize people to implement your plans.
  3. Manage your money. Scant budgets can impair day-to-day management of your urban forest. More importantly, it derails your ability to respond to risk. Budget realistically, and identify and [hopefully] secure funding from diverse sources to deal with current and emerging threats.
  4. Establish a diverse and healthy forest. The nature and extent of risk changes depending on species selection, diversity, age and distribution. The wrong mix [or no mix at all] maximizes the harm done by any single agent. Spending money on improving forest health now can help protect against future risks and promote resilience.
  5. Think locally. Broad principles are a starting point, but be sure to consider local risks [e.g. population change] and seek out the resources to address them.

A short list of risks to your urban forest.

Climate Change

Climate change works both ways. Trees can help mitigate its impact. But climate change creates risks for your urban forest; and that risk varies community by community, even site by site.

Sea Level Rise
climate change and sea level rise

More Storms are ComingClimate change appears to be intensifying the frequency and power of coastal storms.

Of the 25 most populous counties in the US, fully 23 are considered coastal.

NOAA predicts with “…very high confidence that global mean sea level will rise at least 0.2 meters and no more than 2.0 meters by 2100.”

And while it’s impossible to predict precise impacts, some facts are certain. Even the low estimate has the potential to flood significant portions of these communities’ urban forest.


There are a number of tools to assess long-term and short-term fire risk on a variety of scales. Programs like FireWise Communities provide tools and examples of preventative planning for wildfire on scales from single homeowner to the municipality. In managing urban forests for wildfire risk, focus efforts on fire prevention because response following a wildfire will be focused on human and monetary impacts with the rehabilitation of the urban forest lagging far behind.

When planning for wildfire and urban forestry, be sure to look outside the city itself.  Many resources on which your residents depend – in particular, water – can be degraded by fires that never touch the community itself.

Pests, Disease and Invasive Plants
It will cost nearly $11 billion to deal with this ugly pest.

Emerald Ash BorerTo remove and replace the dying, dead and dangerous trees from just one pest – the emerald ash borer – the Forest Service estimates municipalities across the nation will likely spend more than $ 10.7 billion dollars.

Most urban forests are already stressed. And the dangers posed by pests, disease and invasive species continue to increase, with cities paying the bills. As always, planning for perils costs far less than waiting until the dust settles, or the trees fall.  Don’t be surprised. Be prepared.

  • The U.S. Forest Service hosts a portal for forest insect and disease reporting along with the ForWarn change detection system.
  • Field methods designed for pest detection and tree health monitoring are also under development by the Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities initiative of The Nature Conservancy.
  • At more local scales, it can be useful to engage community groups and engaged citizens to help identify new threats and monitor existing populations.
  • Stock your toolkit from our resource library. Many communities have already developed ways to identify threats, prepare responses, and move into action at the right moment.
Natural Life Cycle Changes in your Forest

Age matters, especially in the urban forest. Like many of our elders in society, mature trees contribute a disproportionate share of the benefits of urban forestry. But maintaining old trees can be time-consuming and expensive – especially as age makes them more susceptible to pests and disease.

  • Consider potential liability risks and take care to compare costs and benefits of maintaining old trees against planting new trees.
  • Over the long haul, strive for a tapestry of trees of different ages and species. Uneven age distribution is important for sustainability because it spreads out the timing of all management activities – planting, maintenance, removal, and replacement – so they won’t all come due at once.
  • Uneven-aged forest stands also help pace the delivery of ecosystem services, or tree benefits, so there will be a steady supply at all times. A newly-planted tree needs decades of growth before it can provide the same level of benefits as its elders.

Even more important, trees of similar ages are – surprise! – likely to die at about the same time. Organize your “big number” tree planting campaign wisely. [It can be done. ] Or your community may one day face a huge surge in expenses and a simultaneous deficit in ecosystem services.

Related Resources
Urban Forestry Toolkit