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Salt Lake City mayor hopeful Erin Mendenhall promises to plant 4,000 new trees over 4 years if she’s elected

Salt Lake City mayor candidate Erin Mendenhall plants a maple sapling with former city forester Bill Rutherford on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, to promote a pledge that she’d plant 1,000 new trees on Salt Lake City’s west side every year if she’s elected mayor.
Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall plants a maple sapling with former city forester Bill Rutherford on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, to promote a pledge that she’d plant 1,000 new trees on Salt Lake City’s west side every year if she’s elected mayor.
Katie McKellar

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and former city forester Bill Rutherford planted a maple sapling on a park strip in the Fairpark neighborhood Thursday — promising to plant 1,000 of such saplings on the west side of the city every year of Mendenhall’s term if she’s elected mayor.

Rutherford called the pledge “truly unselfish,” noting trees don’t realize their full potential for at least two or three decades.

“That’s why they say — what is it? — the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago,” Mendenhall said as she shoveled dirt around the sapling. “The next best time is today.”

Mendenhall, who is running against state Sen. Luz Escamilla to be next mayor of Utah’s capital, held a news conference to announce her promise to plant at least 4,000 trees in Salt Lake City’s west side during her first term if she’s elected — saying it would help clean the air, while also making west-side Salt Lake City neighborhoods more welcoming.

“Because more trees really means less pollution,” Mendenhall said. “It means more walkable neighborhoods. It means lower crime rates. It means increased property values. It means taking pollution out of the air and making it easier to breathe and live and work and walk and play here in Salt Lake City.”

Mendenhall noted a “staggering inequity” in Salt Lake City between east-side and west-side neighborhoods when it comes to trees — and she promised to help narrow that gap.

“What a huge opportunity for us,” Mendenhall said.

She noted that today the city “operates upon request” to help plant new trees, but she thinks the city should do more.

“Putting the burden of asking for a tree on the residents needs to stop,” she said. “We need to reconsider that approach.”

Mendenhall said some of the “tree cities of America,” like Minneapolis and St. Paul, don’t wait for a tree request. “They drive around the streets, and if they see an opening on a park strip where a tree will fit and be able to live, the put it in the ground,” she said.

Mendenhall said she supported a Salt Lake City initiative a few years ago to put water bags around new trees to help them thrive in the first few years of their lives — and she pointed to other cities that use old water pump firetrucks to fill empty water bags as examples of more Salt Lake City could do.

She also pledged to “educate our residents about the importance and value of planting trees” to help their property values and use tree shade to save on cooling costs, while also pledging to collaborate with mayors across the valley “to spread the idea and the enthusiasm of a tree planting surge in their own communities.”

Mendenhall said her tree initiative would add to other efforts to help clean the air, including negotiations with Rocky Mountain Power to bring renewable energy to Salt Lake City faster, plans to build out the city’s bus system and transition it to an all-electric fleet, work to expand the city’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and implementation of a city lawn mower and snowblower exchange program.

“We also need to be taking more pollution out of the air,” Mendenhall said. “A single large tree over the course of a year can reduce 10 pounds of air pollution ... it can absorb carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 500 miles of cars driving.”

Asked how much her program would cost, Mendenhall noted she’s only done “back-of-the-napkin” estimates so far without full access to the city’s urban forestry department, but she said there’s plenty of opportunities for grants and partnerships with nonprofits and businesses to help fund it.

Mendenhall’s tree planting on Thursday took place at a park strip in front of the home of one of her supporters, Brett Isbell, who said he’s lived there for 17 years and has seen how trees have helped improve certain houses along his street.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said, particularly for west-side neighborhoods. “When you drive up and down the streets and you hit a neighborhood that’s fully tree lined, it’s just a whole different world.”