STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The city of Albuquerque has been trying to help allergy sufferers by reducing the amount of tree pollen. Since 1994, the city has barred residents from planting certain trees like mulberries, elms and cottonwoods. NPR's Jeff Brady went to Albuquerque to find out if the program is working.
JEFF BRADY: Albuquerque doesn't have as many trees as most towns, but when you combine the ones it does have with hot, dry and often windy weather, that can create big problems for allergy sufferers.
Sixteen years back, the city council added a pollen control ordinance to the books. It bans entire categories of trees, and threatens a $500 fine for violators. If you want to find out whether the ordinance is doing any good, Dan Gates is your guy. He works for the city's Air Quality Division.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
BRADY: Most mornings, Gates treks up some metal stairs and heads toward a green, sun-faded machine at an air-monitoring station.
Mr. DAN GATES (Albuquerque Air Quality Division): So what we'll do here is, we'll pull this slide out. I'll put that in my sample box. And I just replace it with a new slide.
BRADY: Later, Gates will look through a microscope and tally up individual grains on that slide. That's how he determines the pollen count for the day. So here's the big question. After 16 years of banning trees that make allergy sufferers miserable, does Gates see evidence that pollen counts are declining?
Mr. GATES: I haven't seen anything in the numbers.
BRADY: Gates says the counts aren't rising, but they don't appear to be going down, either.
That's disappointing news for residents like Malachi Romero. I caught up with him as he was finishing a bike ride along the Rio Grande River.
So you're wearing a mask there.
Mr. MALACHI ROMERO: Yes, I am, yeah. I'm using it for the allergies. They get real bad now. If I don't get plugged up, they start running and my throat, it changes my voice. Right now, it's not my voice.
BRADY: And it's not just the cottonwoods by the river. Romero has to worry about what's growing in his own yard.
Mr. ROMERO: The two trees that are at my house are outlaw trees. Those were planted before that law passed.
BRADY: And that's the main reason pollen counts aren't down, says City Forester Nick Kuhn. While the 1994 ordinance barred residents from planting new trees, it grandfathered in the old ones.
Mr. NICK KUHN (Albuquerque City Forester): We have to wait for those trees to grow to their mature age and die for whatever reason, or be cut down because of development. We have to wait for them to be gone.
BRADY: Kuhn says as Albuquerque grew, city fathers encouraged people to plant trees like the Siberian elm. It looks like the elms most of us know, but a little smaller. It survives the hot summers and lack of water in Albuquerque because it's tough.
Mr. KUHN: There's a reason why they're tough, and it's 'cause they've evolved over years to be able to reproduce themselves well. And that means pollen.
BRADY: These days, Kuhn spends a lot of time educating Albuquerque residents and local nurseries about what trees are allowed. Some of his advice is good for allergy sufferers everywhere. For example, he says if you want to avoid hay fever-inducing trees in your yard, look for flowering trees.
Mr. KUHN: If you see it's got pretty flowers, that's a good tree to have because they're evolved to use insects, not wind. So they're safe. They're not the allergenic species.
BRADY: And, Kuhn says, you're always safe with female or sterile trees because they don't release any pollen.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
INSKEEP: We have a way that you can find the pollen count in your state. Just follow our Twitter feed @MorningEdition, and go to the link you'll find there. You can also follow me @NPRInskeep, or on Facebook, Steve Inskeep.
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