Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trees And Patriots

At the time of the Revolutionary War there were still a billion acres of forestland carpeting what would become the United States of America. Symbolically, Patriots met under the “Liberty Tree” in Boston before heading to the docks to witness the original tea party protest.

In 1775, as an anti-Patriot object lesson, the British viciously chopped down the 129-year-old Liberty Tree, making it even more ironic that a modern-day Tea Partier is drawing support from the outdoor billboard industry in an attempt to try to unseat a Hendersonville NC Republican State House member who dares to side with the 9 out of 10 North Carolinians who object to the destruction of any more trees along roadsides.

Fourteen turbulent years after that Liberty Tree was mutilated, North Carolina, where I now live, was finally ratifying the new Constitution of the United States of America and broke off the part west of the Appalachian Mountains in December of 1789 to cede it to the newly created federal government in exchange for covering its Revolutionary War debts.

Six years later that territory was accepted into the Union as the 16th state, Tennessee.  And just less than two hundreds years after the British desecration of the Liberty Tree, North Carolina voters embedded protection of forests and trees into the State Constitution.

Over the last several months, I have taken four different road trips across different parts of Tennessee and among my favorites was a detour off I 40 down to Shiloh, the site of a pivotal Civil War battle in which two future US presidents fought to resolve some unfinished business and preserve the Union.

Four months after that trip, I had another unexpected pleasure as I dropped down from Kentucky along a stretch of I 24 through north central Tennessee and the Land Between The Lakes region on my way back from another 6,000-mile cross-country trip.

Today, North Carolina and Tennessee each retains nearly the same overall tree canopy, 60% to 57% respectively but with 30% more land area, North Carolina has 18.6 million acres of non-urban forestland which is about a third more than Tennessee.

While North Carolina also has 50% more population, the two states  have preserved or reforested virtually the same number of acres of urban trees at 1.4 and 1.3 million respectively.

But Tennessee just got a much better handle on its urban forest area thanks to a newly released study by the National Forest Service that may also provide some insight to North Carolina.

Tennessee has an estimated 284 million urban trees broken down as follows:

  • 66.4% in forest
  • 15.5% along streets and other transportation corridors
  • 13.2% on residential land
  • 7.7% on “other” land uses
  • 5% on agricultural lands and
  • 2.2% on commercial or industrial lands.

Studies such as this one done by the National Forest Service for Tennessee have yet to measure the greatest value of urban trees which is as an invaluable contribution to sense of place and economic development, both to demand-side tourism and to the more traditional and more land intensive supply-side.

The Tennessee study does benchmark the structural or “replacement value” of the state’s urban trees at $80 billion.  It also measures another $639 million of annual value generated from these urban trees in the form of carbon storage and sequestration, pollution removal and energy reduction.

But it fails to build on the work of other Forest Service researchers who have linked urban trees to better health outcomes, reductions in domestic violence and increased private property values to name a few.

In addition to the blight of outdoor billboards, the threats undermining the value of these trees include disease, poor development practices including those related to parking lots, utility lines and vegetation screens, disrespectful state highway maintenance practices as well as ignorance of this sort of information which is prevalent among local and state elected officials.

As noted so eloquently at the end of an excellent article that appeared last week in Urban Land magazine entitled The Distinctive City, planning veteran Edward T. McMahon asks the question: “Do you want the character of your city to shape the new development, or do you want the new development to shape the character of the city?”

Especially for anyone who views trees only through the lens of dollars and cents, studies by the U.S. Forest Service such as the one documenting the value of urban forests in Tennessee are invaluable.

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