Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Open letter to The Woodlands Township - Save our natural resources

I was asked to make this letter public, and therefore have published it here.

Situation:  Whereas, (1) We are in the worse drought on record in Southeast Texas.  (2) The Woodlands is economically dependent on the existence of its natural setting and resources, (3) Tall mature trees form the basis of our natural setting, (4) Large reforesting efforts are very expensive and recovery takes decades, (5) The Woodlands has no evident disaster plan for its resources, (6) Weather forecasts predict we may be in the 10th year of a 20-year drought cycle, (7) We will likely lose 10-20% of our trees this year alone.  Tree service companies are knocking on doors trying to convince people to cut their trees down, (7) Even trees on private property is within the jurisdictional scope of the Township (protected in the covenants), (8) Residents have indicated in past annual polls that the most important aspect of this community is its trees,  and  (9) The Woodlands Township has a substantial but unknown valued inventory of mature trees on its deeded properties, including parks and green reserves.  As stewards of these properties and our tax dollars to care for these properties, The Township is responsible for the health and well being of these properties.  Our most basic core value is the forest setting of our community and the wildlife therein.  There are unexploited opportunities to deliver non-potable and potable water resources to our green areas, to provide a means to give life to our forests.  Esplanade watering in 2011 started entirely too late to save many of our trees at most risk.  The Township has a forestry “bible” created by a contractor in 2004 that laid out a forest management plan for this community; we have a reforestation plan derived from that document.  We have grown by leaps and bounds since that study was conducted. Although we have not executed that plan in its entirety, the plan itself has a number of pitfalls, one of which we are experiencing today – severe drought.  This plan provides for normal actions to Texas forests in general; it is tailored specifically for The Woodlands but is not a disaster plan. We have a strategic business plan, but it is not comprehensive and does not cover such disasters. We must take action now to deal with disaster planning for our future, or this master planned community may cease to exist. A pine tree grows at a rate of two feet a year.  We cannot afford to lose all of our mature pines. Status quo is not the answer to this situation. Fire continues to be a hazard for our area as well; the study of 2004 recommended ways to mitigate that threat.  

Request for Action 
As a resident and taxpayer of this community, I hereby request the board of directors to immediately take short term and long term actions to save our trees. We should work with the development company, county and MUD districts who are also stakeholders in the health of our forests. The scope of these actions considers the risks to our economic prosperity, both in business and in residential neighborhoods. Home values are significantly at risk; business volume is also at risk. Therefore, I suggest we develop two plans. One is for short term planning, where residents, businesses, and the government partner to provide water to our trees, saving as many as possible. Establish a partnership with tree service companies to inform residents with a common message of preservation. Establish a licensing process for tree service providers, to help prevent misinformation being spread to homeowners on the necessity of cutting down trees.  Establish a research and grant partnership with educational institution(s) to find best practices and evolving means to save our forests in the context of current changing issues, including disease control.
Suggested course of action
Immediately establish a task force to recommend near term actionable tasks.  Perhaps we could call the program “Save our Woodlands one tree at a time”. As the winter approaches, the drier air is likely to stress the trees even further. We are in our “wet season” but the dry climate over the past three years has demonstrated the need to pay attention to the problem even in cold months and “wet” seasons. The devastation to our forests this summer was predictable. We are way behind in rainfall and have been behind for three years.  
Short term (now): To provide vision and possible specifics, I can give a possible start of ideas: develop an immediate watering plan to make sure our trees have sufficient water to survive.  Assume this drought continues; don’t wait any longer. Identify the areas most threatened by the drought. Utilize the 2004 study to assist in this process but do not limit an action plan to that study. This includes the high risk of beetle infestations which is very likely to occur over the next 12 months. Be willing to displace other projects in the 2011 and 2012 budget plan to make this happen.  Be willing to spend emergency funds to make this happen. Include residential and business-owned trees in an estimated inventory of mature trees. Track and report on the general health of our forest at various locations. Use all resources available – including the RDRCs and DSC which are tasked to protect the large trees on private and business properties.  Communicate judiciously and often with homeowners and businesses on their responsibilities to care for trees on their properties.  Solicit volunteers to help with the process. It is implied in the covenants that residents must water their trees.  Establish a partnership with the water authority to acquire water for this emergency; seek to lower the cost of watering trees.   Communicate with residents on their responsibility to the community for saving one tree at a time.  Quantify costs and identify funding resources to make this happen. Encourage residents to help with public lands.  Utilize Township resources to perform these actions. Prepare a health check of our forests and present it to the community at a widely publicized Townhall meeting. Participate in the Houston-Galveston Fall  Planning workshop for the environment and be a regional player to mitigate future risks.
Long term (within one year):  Develop the economics of our trees, their impact on our economy and specific risks to their health. Establish a clear vision and strategy in the Township business plan that places the proper importance of our forests and triggers urgent proactive and reactive actions in the future when the forest is thus threatened again. Inventory our large mature trees, especially those with a diameter greater than six inches and establish their location. Have a working relationship with a major university such as Texas A&M to ensure we are on the front line of loss prevention.

If we were an insurance company, our rating would be very low right now to provide coverage for our forests. And yes, we actually are an insurance company. We insure ourselves.  Let’s admit we are in trouble and take action.
Thank you for playing close and urgent attention to this matter and aggressively seek to protect our property values and the quality of life in The Woodlands, by saving our forest, what is left of it. Let’s not be in the same position regarding this subject next year at this time.

Randy Scott, stakeholder and resident of The Woodlands  

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