Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall shoveled piles of dirt onto a maple tree sapling in a west side neighborhood Thursday — a visual mark of her campaign pledge to plant at least 1,000 more trees on this side of the city every budget year if elected as mayor.
Such a move would improve not only air quality, the candidate said at a news conference announcing the plan, but also would promote walkability, improve equity on the sometimes-neglected west side and boost property values.
“More trees really means less pollution,” she 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.”
The state’s capital has room for at least 25,000 new trees, according to city estimates. Mendenhall, pointing to a “staggering inequity” in tree distribution between the east and west sides and air quality issues that disproportionately impact the west side, argued “it’s pretty clear where those should go."
Mendenhall, who is serving her second term representing Salt Lake City’s District 5, got her entrance into politics through air-quality advocacy. She currently serves as the chairwoman of the state Air Quality Board and helped co-found the clean-air advocacy group Breathe Utah before running for public office.
Throughout the race for mayor — in which she will face west side Sen. Luz Escamilla in November — she has advocated for more aggressive carbon reduction goals, incentives to clean up the dirtiest buildings in the city and creation of a program for residents to swap out polluting snowblowers and lawn mowers for climate-friendly ones.
“But we also need to be taking more pollution out of the air,” Mendenhall said Thursday.
Her campaign estimates that the 4,000 trees planted in her first term would do just that, eventually removing 40,000 pounds of pollution and generating more than 1 million pounds of new oxygen every year.
A study published in the journal Science earlier this year found that one of the cheapest and most effective solutions to combat climate change is to plant trees, since they take carbon dioxide out of the air. They also help fight urban heat, which could help decrease energy costs for cash-strapped residents, with Mendenhall estimating more trees could save a combined $172,000 in annual heating and cooling costs.
“You don’t have to be a tree whisperer to know how meaningful this initiative Erin’s taking is for the city,” said Bill Rutherford, a former Salt Lake City urban forester, as he and Mendenhall tamped down the dirt near the freshly planted maple tree. “It’s going to make a difference not just in the short term but for generations. The fact of the matter is these trees we’re planting now and for the next few years will not realize their greatest potential for 25 to 30 years.”
“That’s why they say — what is it? — the best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago,” Mendenhall added. “The next best time is today.”
In addition to the tree planting initiative, the candidate promised Thursday to also promote planting on private property and to partner with other mayors in the valley to encourage similar initiatives to improve regional air quality.
Mendenhall said she didn’t have an estimate for exactly how much the initiative would cost but added that her administration would pursue federal and nonprofit grants alongside other partnerships. And because she plans to plant canopy trees, which provide more shade than flowering trees do but are also more likely to disrupt curbs, Mendenhall said her administration would be prepared to take on extra costs for needed repairs.
Rutherford said the city has chosen where to plant trees in the past based on resident requests and pointed to that as one possible reason for the differences between the east and west sides.
While Mendenhall said the city would continue to take requests for trees, she said the practice of “putting the burden of asking for a tree on the residents needs to stop.”
The tree planted Thursday was in the parking strip in front of the home of Brett Isbell, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and said he’s noticed a disparity in the tree lining there compared to the east side of town.
“It’s right on,” he said of Mendenhall’s initiative, which he believes has the opportunity to "increase home values [and] increase the beautification of the city. I just think it’s a smart thing.”