Urban Forestry in Fairfax County — A Look at the Past and Future


(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, December 2003)

Thirty years ago, at the urging of a dedicated group of citizens, Fairfax County enacted a Tree Preservation and Planting Ordinance, one of the first local ordinances in the nation to require the protection and preservation of existing tree cover during the land development and construction processes. The county also established an Office of the County Arborist to administer the new ordinance and a Tree Commission, appointed by the Board of Supervisors, to represent the interests of the public in tree-related matters. Prior to 1973, there were few or no requirements for developers to preserve existing trees or provide landscape plantings for new developments.

By the mid 1980’s, development in Fairfax County was at a break away pace with dozens of large residential and commercial construction projects underway at any given time. The Arborist Office became the primary instrument within Fairfax County government to ensure the preservation and protection of forest cover, oversee the removal of trees rendered hazardous by construction activities, and ensure that required landscaping was properly designed and installed.

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, professional foresters and arborists began reassessing many of the long-held theories and practices about how trees react to stress; how to mitigate the effects of stress; and how to use landscape trees to heat and cool buildings and reduce stormwater costs. The Arborist Office took a proactive approach to managing the flood of changes to urban forestry by diligently monitoring industry standards and updating local requirements affecting trees and forest conservation when it was apparent that changes were needed to mirror new research.

The last decade saw a series of events affecting the Arborist Office. The office name was changed to the Urban Forestry Division to better reflect the work that was taking place. The Board of Supervisors adopted a local ordinance, based on state-enabling legislation, requiring certain levels of tree cover on developed sites, and the Board directed the Urban Forestry staff to become more involved in review of proposed zoning cases.

In 1997, the county’s Gypsy Moth Suppression Program merged with the Urban Forestry Division and was renamed the Forest Pest Management Section. In addition to monitoring and treating for gypsy moth, the county began to manage for an explosion in the cankerworm population. Today, Forest Pest Management is providing expert assistance to other county agencies in the suppression of mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus.

Fairfax County reached an estimated population of one million people in 2001. Despite the huge population surge over the last 30 years and the resulting development, we are fortunate to have been able to maintain a relatively high amount of forest cover. An analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery reveals that approximately 45%, or 105,750 of Fairfax County’s 235,000 acres of landmass, was covered with trees in the year 2000.

In 2002, Fairfax County received its 20th consecutive Tree City USA Award, plus a second Tree City Growth Award, for significant improvements to its urban forestry program and local ordinance.

To assess current and future trends of forest cover in the county, the Urban Forestry Division is working on a regional remote sensing satellite imagery analysis of forest cover and vegetation. This data will be used to manage the urban forest and will be a component of the Urban Forest Management Plan for the county, which is scheduled to be published in 2004.

For more information and to contact the Tree Commission, call 703-324-1770, TTY 711.

Frequently Asked Forestry Questions

  • Rezoning-Land Use Issues Affecting Trees
    The Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan and Policy Plan guides development in the county. Residents should work with their homeowner or civic associations, as well as land use councils in their magisterial districts, to stay abreast of development plans and to provide input. For additional information contact the Urban Forestry Division or the Fairfax County Tree Commission at 703-324-1770, TTY 711.

  • Tree Care and Neighbor-Tree Disputes
    Homeowners often have concerns about caring for and managing the trees on their property. Disputes with neighbors regarding trees are best resolved through thoughtful communication. A consultation with a private certified arborist can be helpful. Contact the Mid-Altantic Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture to find a Certified Arborist.

  • Native Plants versus Invasive Exotic Plants
    Many homeowners have invasive exotic plants on their property. These plants can seriously damage native plant and animal communities and increase soil erosion. Invasive species cost the U.S. an estimated 20-30 billion dollars each year in control efforts and agricultural losses. Information on landscaping with native plants and trees, removal of invasives, and finding alternatives to plants such as English ivy, honeysuckle and callery/bradford pear is available. Contact the Virginia Natural Heritage program or the Virginia Native Plant Society. For Chesapeake Bay riparian buffer restoration, contact the Stormwater Planning Division of the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services at 703-324-5500, TTY 711,  or the Virginia Department of Forestry at 703-324-1480, TTY 711 .

  • Hazardous Trees
    For trees within the right-of-way of most public streets, call the Virginia Department of Transportation at 703-383-2105, TTY 711. For trees on county parkland call the Park Authority at 703-324-8594, TTY 711. For trees on active construction projects call the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services at 703-324-1950, TTY 711.

  • Citizen Participation in Reforestation and Tree Plantings
    Contact Fairfax ReLeaf at 703-324-1409, TTY 711.

  • Large Scale Woodlot Management
    To find a Certified Forester, contact the Society of American Foresters at 301-897-8720 or at the toll free number 1-866-897-8720 or the Virginia Department of Forestry at 703-324-1480, TTY 711.

Contact Fairfax County: Phone, Email or Twitter | Main Address: 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035
Technical Questions: Web Administrator

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