The time to plant more trees is now.
Trees provide the very necessities of life itself. They clean our air, protect our drinking water, create healthy communities, and help connect us with nature. But these life necessities are becoming increasingly threatened in the United States and around the globe.
A study published in 2018 by the US Forest Service found that tree cover in US cities is shrinking. According to the report, we lost 36 million trees annually in both urban and rural environments over a five-year stretch. That’s roughly 175 acres of trees per year and a 1% drop from 2009 to 2014.
In certain instances, the changes were drastic enough to amount to almost half a percent of a city’s tree cover every year. Without programs in place to counter this alarming trend, those fractions of a percent add up to significant, noticeable losses over just a few years.
“If we continue on this path, cities will become warmer, more polluted and generally more unhealthy for inhabitants,” said David Nowak, a senior US Forest Service scientist and co-author of the study.
Deforestation is a key contributor to the unfortunate decline of trees in the US. The process clears out forests to make the land usable for different types of development like building houses, roads, stores, and other human structures.
Nowak adds that there are many other reasons that contribute to our tree canopy is declining, including hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, insects, and disease. However, he states that one thing humans can control when it comes to tree loss is sensible development.
“We see the tree cover being swapped out for impervious cover, which means when we look at the photographs, what was there is now replaced with a parking lot or a building,” Nowak said.
10 Benefits Trees Provide to Society
Eric Greenfield, another scientist with the US Forest Service, says that we’ve lost $96 million in benefits due to tree decline over the period of the study. He also claims that figure is a conservative estimate. Officials arrived at that number by calculating the benefits of urban trees, including air pollution removal, energy conservation, carbon sequestration, and avoided emissions.
That $96 million estimate, however, isn’t just conservative. It significantly understates the losses.
Heat Reduction: Trees provide shade for our homes, office buildings, parks, and roadways, cooling surface temperatures.
Air pollution reduction: Trees absorb carbon and remove pollutants from the atmosphere.
Energy emissions reduction: Trees reduce energy costs by approximately $4 billion a year.
Water quality improvement: Trees act as water filters, taking in dirty surface water and absorbing nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil.
Flooding reduction: Trees reduce flooding by absorbing water and reducing runoff into streams.
Noise reduction: Trees can deflect sound, which is why you see them lining highways, along fences, and between roads and neighborhoods.
Protection from UV radiation: Trees absorb up to 96 percent of ultraviolet radiation.
Improved aesthetics: Tree and leaf cover improve the looks and value of any property.
Improved human health: Many studies have found connections between exposure to nature and better mental and physical health.
Wildlife habitat: Many animals rely on trees for food, shelter, and nesting.
Meanwhile, their continued removal from urban areas will ultimately make these communities more unhealthy and more expensive to reside in.
How to Help
The US Forest Service and other organizations are working to address the issue of tree decline. They have launched initiatives to create change by planting trees. In fact, the Arbor Day Foundation launched the Time for Trees initiative. They set an ambitious goal to plant 100 million trees in forests and communities around the globe by 2022.
One of the easiest ways to get involved is to volunteer or donate to tree planting and research organizations. There are many great ones to choose from but a few that are widely-recognized include The Arbor Day Foundation, National Forest Foundation, Trees Atlanta, ReLeaf Michigan, Urban ReLeaf, and Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition.
Furthermore, one of the first steps is caring for the trees on your own property. Nowak says that keeping an eye on the trees on your property is an important responsibility. He recommends hiring an arborist to assess the health of your trees annually.
It is also important to avoid common misconceptions. While planting a tree is a great thing, they take years to fully grow and develop. Planting a new tree does not entirely make up for the removal of an old tree.
Be an active voice in your community. Bring up local tree health with officials and homeowners who can ensure the care of these amazing organisms. Many cities have tree ordinances that are willing to protect significant trees. Get involved by attending city council meetings and by joining local nonprofit groups.
However, no one person can accomplish this goal alone. It’s going to take individuals, businesses, corporate partners, and legislators working together to green their communities. In addition to establishing our own conservation ethic, we also have to educate the next generation of tree planters on why trees are so important.