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Trees: New Ways to Look at an Old Resource

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Central Park

Central Park in New York City is a tree-filled park located within one of the world's largest urban areas.

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Our Attitudes About Trees

People who don't understand the strong ties between people and trees derisively call those who do "treehuggers." They might realize there is a deforestation problem in South America, but not in their own backyards - we have been cutting down trees in the United States for hundreds of years.

At best, we take them for granted, or act as if trees are in unlimited supply, as once they seemed to be when the U.S. was young. Most of the lush deciduous forest the first settlers encountered in the eastern half of the country has been razed to clear land for farms and other built environments or to provide wood to make and heat cabins. Trees were valuable as resources for the benefits they provided when they were cut down.

The value of a resource, its worth or desirability, is related to how well it can help humans survive and thrive. That value is whatever people believe it to be and this can vary from time period to time period. Historical developments in technology can change how humans value resources. That's why today in some places, trees are cleared because they are seen as having little or lesser value. For example, across the country, rather than trimming a live tree as they used to do, power companies are clear cutting any vegetation capable of growing more than a certain height (i.e. 12-15 feet) that could be an immediate or future problem to the electric distribution system, and doing so along the full width of a right of way at broad distances up to 150 feet on both sides of a power line. Expanded clear cutting and spraying with herbicides allows utilities to reduce their costs because they don't have to deal with vegetation as often.

Unfortunately, their cost savings comes at the expense of massive numbers of trees and the benefits they provide, important benefits of which many of us have no knowledge.

Trees Provide Substantial and Quantifiable Benefits

Urban forestry is a field concerned with the management of trees in urban areas. In recent decades, this field has produced many science-based studies that define and quantify how trees significantly meet our needs and affect our well-being and quality of life. Based on this evidence, here is a very cursory overview of the value and benefits that living trees provide:
  • Trees add value and beauty to our life
  • Trees provide a food source (nuts and fruit)
  • Therapeutic value (improved recovery times)
  • Psychological benefits (emotional well-being, stress reduction, happiness)
  • Safety (less crime and domestic violence in treed neighborhoods/housing developments.)
  • Sociable neighborhoods and stronger community relationships. (treed places get more use than treeless places.)
  • Privacy screening
  • Noise control/sound barrier (reducing noise from roads and overhead).
  • Property values increase from 3%-20%
  • Improved worker productivity
  • Wooded locations enhance tourism and shopping
  • Erosion control and soil health ($31,250 value over a 50-year lifetime-US Forest Service)
  • Tree-created micro-climates moderate the effects of rain, wind and sun
  • Trees can reduce home energy costs up to 40%
  • Wind control/barrier (reduce wind speed and infiltration of dust and slow down weathering damage)
  • Summer cooling (but removing trees creates "heat island" effect)
  • Winter warming (barrier to cold winds; warming sunlight strikes buildings after leaves fall)
  • Snow control provided by tall, densely-planted evergreens that trap snow, control drifting and improve road aesthetics
  • Trees play an important role in the water cycle. Fewer trees mean less precipitation.
  • Flood control and water quality. Trees slow and reduce surface water runoff, their roots help purify groundwater; ($37,500 over a 50-year lifetime-US Forest Service).
  • Trees purify the air we breathe ($62,000 in pollution control over a 50-year lifetime-US Forest Service), filter dust and particulates, provide oxygen ($31,250 over a 50-year lifetime-US Forest Service), absorb tons of carbon dioxide, and remove carbon, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and other toxins.

Research indicates that the larger and lusher the trees, the greater the benefits and protection, especially for climate control, air quality, cooling, and perceived community attractiveness. Property owners can use a tree benefit calculator (i.e. www.itreetools.org) to learn about the monetary value of their trees.

Different Attitudes About Trees Needed?

"The choices that people make concerning ecosystems are shaped by what they value in the system . . . Historically, human well-being was largely defined in terms of income and consumption; it is now recognized to include the material minimum for a good life, freedom and choice, health, good social relations, security, and peace of mind and spiritual experience." Ecosystems and Human Well Being: A Framework for Assessment (Millenium Ecosystem Assessment)

Woodlands are home to 70% of the planet's land plants and animals. Clear cutting results in the loss of essential habitat and biodiversity, upsetting the delicate balance of our ecosystems. Clearly, trees preserve the planet that preserves us.

The public and public officials need to be better informed about these benefits and start looking at trees as a resource in a new way, not for the value we derive when they are removed, but for the greater and ongoing value provided to humans when this resource survives and thrives.

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