In a downstream corner of Herring Run Park, a tall tree forms an arch, weighted by a cascade of vines and leafy ivy. Lisa Kopf declares it dead.
Nearby, another tree’s brown body is starting to disappear behind a bed of green. Kopf, a park neighbor who spends much of the fall and winter clearing vines, weeds, ivy and other nonnative invasive species in the 2.3 mile-long urban oasis, thinks it has a chance of being saved — but time is running out.
A retired art teacher, Kopf has trained in the art of nonnative invasive plant identification and removal. She’s a “card-carrying” member of the Baltimore City Weed Warriors, a free Recreation and Parks Department program that instructs volunteers how to spot and dislodge harmful entities that can kill other desired plants from urban green spaces. Her certification allows her to do basic removal work unsupervised on city-owned land.
With the help of a few neighbors, Kopf said, she has mostly stabilized the portion of Herring Run Park that runs from Harford Road to Belair Road. But she needs more help: South of Belair Road, the condition of the forest has deteriorated, she said, and several trees and native plants are in jeopardy.
“It’s an overwhelming task,” said Kopf. “We have the time to do some invasives removal. But we really need more people to make real progress. And rec and parks needs more money.”
Environmental stewards and advocates say the importance of keeping Baltimore’s trees and urban green spaces healthy has risen in tandem with the growing threat of global climate collapse. Healthy urban forests play several outsized roles in Baltimore: They help cool temperatures, filter stormwater runoff, absorb air pollution, oxygenate, store carbon, enrich biodiversity and provide community recreation and respite.
But concerned citizens and park volunteers say Baltimore officials’ commitment to its urban greenery isn’t deep-rooted: Keeping trees and green spaces alive for present and future generations to enjoy deserves more attention, they say, and much more money.
Some regard the city as a model for its work increasing tree canopy coverage, which research shows can protect neighborhoods from extreme heat and produce stronger public health outcomes for residents. A 2019 report from CNS Maryland, a student-run wire publication at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, found that many of the neighborhoods formerly classified by bankers as investment “risks” had less tree canopy protection than neighborhoods classified as “safe” to invest in.
The result is a tree disparity that leaves large swaths of Baltimore uncovered, and therefore more exposed to sunlight, the engine that allows weeds to flourish.
Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration has committed, along with another city program called TreeBaltimore, to increase the tree canopy coverage to 40% by 2030; the current coverage rate stands at about 28%, according to city data.
“If you lose one tree, you can’t plant enough to make up for that,” said Robert Poirier, another Herring Run neighbor who, along with Kopf, has worked to cut vines and other invasive species in a section of the park. “We need to keep what we have and keep them from being suffocated.”
Poirier was one of a handful of Baltimore Banner readers who — as part of our Better Baltimore series — asked us to look into the work that residents were doing as a consequence of limited city dollars dedicated to nonnative invasive plant removal.
“Invasives are one of the primary causes for the devastation occurring in our parks,” Poirier wrote. “Overall we need more balanced and effective maintenance or we will continue to lose the benefits of these green spaces.”
City officials acknowledge the constraints in their work. Replacing dead and dying trees can take generations, said Ashley Bowers, an environmental policy and conservation analyst for the agency, and current programs urgently need to be scaled up.
The recreation and parks agency’s overall budget would increase slightly in fiscal year 2023 under a proposed budget plan Scott’s administration has put forward, from $59.9 million to $61 million, and includes 44 additional staff positions, five of them in the urban forestry division which handles tree maintenance.
Of that proposed allocation to rec and parks, about $5.6 million would go toward the forestry division, a 21% increase from last year’s budget but still less than what the agency received the year prior.
“The city needs funding to grow our programs for us to reach more parks and communities,” Bowers said in an email. “We need support in stressing the importance of urban forested natural areas and preserving them as existing and essential [green] infrastructure for Baltimoreans.”
But participation in the Weed Warriors program has grown, even throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Bowers said. Launched in 2008, it started gaining traction in 2015 and had its curriculum revamped three years later. Since then, hundreds of volunteers of all ages have been trained in nonnative invasive plant removal and monitoring, Bowers said. Similar programs exist in Montgomery and Carroll counties.
Volunteers aren’t just removing weeds and cutting vines; they are documenting new plants found in city parkland in digital databases, helping to promote weed-pulling events or encouraging newcomers to get certified.
James Wolf, a Weed Warrior who leads monthly events, said he has become a program “evangelist” on the city’s behalf.
A former environmental scientist and consultant, Wolf said moving closer to Wyman Park opened his eyes to just how much work needed to be done in the city’s vast public parks network. Without more effort spread throughout the city, the disparities in environmental and public health will continue to grow worse, he said.
For example, Wolf said, Wyman Park neighbors, many of whom work for nearby universities, tend to have more leisure time to spend getting certified and doing volunteer work. In other areas of Baltimore, there’s less of a volunteer workforce able to pitch in.
“The city knows this, and that’s why they’re attempting to outsource to residents the work. They know it needs to be done and there are no other resources to do it,” he said. “If they want us to grow and get to next level, they’ve got to hire enough personnel or get the planting part done. They’re incredibly helpful but stretched too thin.”
Wolf said most troubling is the work needed on park edges and where trees already have fallen or died — the spaces the most sunlight gets in, allowing nonnative, invasive species to grow and spread their seeds. From there, they can crawl upon, strangle and choke to death nearby trees and even cause harm to animals and humans that interact with them.
For example, poison hemlock, a type of weed that can be poisonous if eaten and is toxic to skin and lungs, is growing in Herring Run Park on “sledding hill,” in plain view of passersby and with ample sunlight to keep it growing. Poirier, who likes to monitor the site, said it’s often crowded with children, dogs and unassuming park-goers.
Weed warriors aren’t certified to handle poison hemlock: It must be remediated with herbicide. Weed warriors aren’t permitted to use chemical herbicides or power tools.
All the more reason to increase the investment in the parks department and forestry division, Wolf said.
“I try to evangelize getting spots, small spots, and just going back to it a couple times a year, especially these areas on the edge of the forest or side of road,” Wolf said. “In the areas I’ve focused on, we’ve opened vistas, we’ve restored areas, we’ve liberated hundreds of trees, all apart from [the city]. I hope it’s spread to other areas.”