Austin’s Urban Forest

First urban forest inventory of Austin, Texas, reveals the benefits of the city's trees

Austin skyline framed by urban forest. Photo by Ron Billings, Texas A&M Forest Service.
Austin skyline framed by urban forest. Photo by Ron Billings, Texas A&M Forest Service.

In late February, the U.S. Forest Service published its first urban forest assessment for Austin, Texas. Using Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data, Austin’s Urban Forest 2014 provides details on the composition and health of the city’s urban forest and the benefits it provides.

According to the report, Austin’s trees provide almost $34 million in services and benefits to the community in air pollution removal, carbon sequestration and energy savings.

Since 1930, the Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program has provided information on the nation’s forests, but has largely excluded urban areas. In 2014, FIA formalized an annualized urban inventory program, partnering with Forest Service i-Tree researchers to analyze FIA data collected from city plots and to quantify benefits.

Austin, Texas, is one of the first cities to be included in the new Urban FIA Program, which has other pilot projects underway in Baltimore, Maryland, Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Providence, Rhode Island.

“Austin is an ideal location because of our long-term relationships with the State of Texas and the enthusiasm of the Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) to collaborate on and support the program,” said David Nowak, lead author of Austin’s Urban Forest 2014 and research forester with the Forest Service Northern Research Station.

Austin is one of the fastest growing communities in Texas. Across the state, some 85 percent of Texans live in urban areas. With the state’s population continuing to increase – and with the growing recognition of the environmental and economic benefits that trees contribute in urban areas – there’s a pressing need to provide up-to-date, objective information to city governments, nonprofits, and consultants to strengthen urban forest management and advocacy efforts. Results from this first urban inventory serves as a baseline for future studies and validates the importance of Austin’s trees.

Texas A&M Forest Service personnel measure a tree for the Austin urban inventory. Photo by Chris Edgar, Texas A&M Forest Service.
Texas A&M Forest Service personnel measure a tree for the Austin urban inventory. Photo by Chris Edgar, Texas A&M Forest Service.

“We found that throughout the city, an estimated 33.8 million trees provide a canopy cover of 30.8 percent, which in turn provides a wide range of important benefits,” said Nowak. “These include air pollution removal, reduced carbon emissions and stormwater runoff, reduced energy use for buildings, and carbon sequestration.”

  • The economic value of air pollution removal is based on the number of cases per year of avoided health effects. Using i-Tree Eco, the researchers estimated that Austin’s urban trees remove 1,253 tons of air pollution per year with an associated value of $2.8 million.
  • Similarly, the trees of Austin helped reduce surface water runoff by an estimated 65 million cubic feet a year and sequestered about 92,000 tons of carbon per year with an associated $11.6 million per year.
  • Trees affect energy consumption by shading buildings, providing evaporative cooling, and blocking winter winds. The net effect of Austin’s trees on residential energy costs is $18.9 million annually.

The report also includes details on tree species, forest composition, and forest health. Researchers concluded that a number of factors will impact Austin’s urban forest in the future, including insect and disease infestations, invasive trees and other plants, the aging and loss of larger trees, changes in the management and use of the forest, and human population growth.

“While data from this report captures the urban forest resource and the benefits the city and its people derive from it, future monitoring is necessary to show how it’s changing over time,” said Tom Brandeis, research forester with the Forest Service Southern Research Station FIA unit and co-author of the report. “For now, managers can use these data as a baseline to inform long-term management plans and policies needed to sustain a healthy urban forest and the benefits it provides.”

In addition to the report, a survey of urban landowners is being conducted on their opinions on issues concerning trees in urban areas. Texas A&M Forest Service also will soon launch an online application called My City’s Trees on TexasForestInfo.com that will enable users to access and explore information on Austin’s urban forest.

Access the full text of the report as a PDF or EPUB.

For more information, email David Nowak at dnowak@fs.fed.us

Additional co-authors of the report include: Allison Bodine, Davy Institute; Robert Hoehn III, Northern Research Station; Christopher Edgar, Texas A&M Forest Service; Dudley Hartel, Southern Research Station; and Tonya Lister, Northern Research Station.

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