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City forester works to make San Antonio shadier, healthier place to live

City Forester Michael Holinsky examines a live oak at Gilbert Garza Park on the far West Side
Brian Kirkpatrick
City Forester Michael Holinsky examines a live oak at Gilbert Garza Park on the far West Side

It might be the one of the most Zen-sounding jobs anywhere in San Antonio: City Forester. Michael Holinsky oversees the planting and maintenance of trees in city spaces.

How many trees would you guess San Antonio has? Your guess will probably be way too low.

Here's the answer. A Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service survey reported last year there were 137 million trees in and around the City of San Antonio.

It's not Holinsky's job to watch over all those trees — just the ones at city parks, street right of ways, and offices across the city.

He's Canadian, and he held the same job with the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He's lived in San Antonio for a year and half.

Holinsky grew up with a tree house and a love for tall things with bark and leaves.

The Ben Milam Bald Cypress on the San Antonio River Walk, seen in the center, may be the city's most famous tree
Juan Guerra
San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department
The Ben Milam Bald Cypress on the San Antonio River Walk (center) may be the city's most famous tree.

"Loved ‘em always as a kid,” he said. "I feel so lucky every day to come to work. I'm super passionate about trees. I'm a huge tree dork. I go home and read about trees in my free time. When I was a kid, my mom always knew when I was coming home because I would be walking down the path with some kind of tree, trying to plant it somewhere on our property, and see how it grows, see how it does. [I]t's been a life-long passion of mine."

One major goal of the city's new forester is reducing the number of heat islands in the city by planting more trees.

"I have a map on my computer. It’s basically … looking down as if you're at Google Maps. We have these hot zones where we can see it's hotter in this particular area than others, so the idea is: The more trees and the more canopy we can get in those areas, the cooler it will become in those areas. And a lot of those are … streets, parking lots, schools that have those big flat tops that accumulate a lot of that heat."

He said planting trees along streets, not just in parks, is a big priority right now.

"We are expanding a little bit to focus more on street planting,” Holinsky said. “That's where our heat islands are, so shading that — reducing the ambient temperature — [is the goal]. There’s a whole lot of benefits that come along with street trees, including ... shielding pedestrians from street traffic … habitat for animals [and] property value increase.”

The Agrilife Extension Service reports that each year, San Antonio’s urban forest removes more than 6,500 tons of air pollution, saving $63 million in health costs. It also reduces stormwater runoff and saves residents $22 million, or nearly $14 per person in energy costs each year.

The proposed removal of 48 trees at Brackenridge Park to spare retention walls and historic structures from tree-related damage has caused some controversy. No final decisions have been made yet. The plan is currently before the city's historic review commission.

Holinsky had no direct comment on the park's trees or the controversy. But he believes the city's tree policies come from a good place.

"You can definitely say I'm a tree hugger,” he said. “In so far as everything that I have seen, the city is very, very careful. They are very invested in making sure green space remains green and the trees remain healthy, while the park, being a feature of the city, is beautiful and attracts visitors."

Holinsky said he would also like to diversify the city's tree canopy. It's dominated by oak and elm, both with known diseases, which could spell trouble in the long run. San Antonians right now are also dealing with the sneezes and sniffles associated with the dense lime-green pollen dust falling from live oaks.

The city forester said the city's most famous tree may be the Ben Milam Bald Cypress on the River Walk, which is more than 400 years old. River barge guides tell tourists a Mexican sniper perched in that tree shot and killed the Alamo fighter.

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