Cities overlook value of trees

Following a three-year drought where trees struggled to survive, no one could have predicted 2009 would bring 54 inches of rain, or the disastrous flooding in September that claimed lives, ruined property and devastated communities.

Mother Nature is unpredictable. Indeed, the National Weather Service, quoted in the AJC, said some locations recorded 20 inches of rain in 24-hour period beginning Sept. 20, pegging the chances of such a deluge at 1 in 10,000.

The recent flooding reminds us of the importance of trees to our ecosystem. According to American Forests, formerly known as the American Forestry Association, “tree cover in urban areas east of the Mississippi has declined by about 30 percent over the last 20 years while the foot print of the urban areas has increased by 20 percent. With this decline in tree cover, significant air and water management costs have increased.”

The Georgia Forestry Commission notes that “trees act as natural water filters and help significantly slow the movement of stormwater, which lowers total runoff volume, soil erosion and flooding.” It also notes that “during a heavy rain, a healthy forest can absorb as much as 20,000 gallons of water in an hour.”

Cities spend tremendous amounts of money installing stormwater control systems and repairing damage from flooding.

In 1996, Atlanta’s tree cover had saved the region $2.36 billion in storm water retention costs, American Forests estimated.

In 2001, the group estimated Atlanta spent $240 million to counter the effects of lost tree canopy and meet state sewer standards.

Many elected officials don’t understand that tree loss costs them billions of dollars in ecological services like stormwater management.

Recurring droughts and the recent floods are reminders of the importance of a natural infrastructure.

While research and technical analysis of land cover demonstrates the ability of trees for improving air, water, and energy, local officials need to adopt tree canopy public policies to be effective.

According to NASA, Atlanta has lost 65 percent of its tree cover over the last 30 years, replacing green areas with residential and commercial development dominated by concrete and asphalt. AF recommends 40 percent tree cover for a healthy city; Atlanta has a tree canopy of only 27 percent.

Maintaining a robust enough tree cover to function as green infrastructure reduces the need and expense of building infrastructure to manage air and water resources.

Replacing tree canopy is critical to our ecosystem and should be the necessary responsibility of our elected officials. Fortunately today there are software tools available to assist local governments to make sound management decisions regarding tree canopy.

Municipalities such as Houston; Lodi, Calif.; Lacy, Wash.; Salem, Ore.; and Collier County, Fla., have successfully incorporated the ecosystem value of trees into their local ordinances, best management practices, and replacement value of destroyed trees.

In addition to their beauty and economic benefit, trees offer intangible benefits as well: Trees are a reflection of the inevitable cycles of life and planting a tree is a great antidote to depression and isolation. This is a tough economic time, and many Georgians find themselves unemployed for extended periods of time.

Trees Atlanta holds two to three volunteer tree planting and maintenance projects every Saturday, year round. Planting a tree, caring for it and watching it grow is an easy way to build relationships, give back to community, and witness the fruits of your labor for years to come. It won’t put food on the table or pay the bills, but it can boost morale and connect you with your neighbors and new networks.

Trees matter in so many different ways.

Marcia D. Bansley is executive director of Trees Atlanta.

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