Monday, July 23, 2012

Managing Forests On 17 Million Acres Of Roadside

When I set out again with Mugsy, my English Bulldog, for an annual rendezvous with family at a lake along the border of Washington and Northern Idaho, for a special reason we’ll head up I 77 across the very southwestern tip of Virginia.

Just as we pass through/under Walker Mountain via an incredible 4,200-foot tunnel that was completed 17 years before I relocated in 1989 to Durham, NC, where we live, I want to view the Blue Ridge valley running along the north side of the mountain, where my maternal great-grandparents x 5 settled and appear on late 1700s property records.

That stretch is part of 163,000 miles in the National Highway System (NHS.)  While comprising only 4% of the nation’s roads, the system carries more than 40% of all highway traffic, 75% of heavy truck traffic and 90% of tourist traffic which our trip will be.

Interstates such as I 77 represent only 1.1% of the nation’s roads but carry 24% of all highway travel.  The system is named for President Eisenhower under whom it was launched back when I was 8 years old, the age of my oldest grandson now.

However, planning for the Interstates began in the late 1930s and early 1940s under President Franklin Roosevelt and under whom then-General Eisenhower served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces In Europe during World War II, but it could be argued that the idea for the system dates to an 1808 report prepared for President Thomas Jefferson.

But overall the national highway system is also in the forestry management business with 68% of the right of way unpaved, about 5 million of the 17 million acres managed by highway agencies overall across the nation.

Only 11% of the NHS roadside is covered by trees which by policy are to be cleared back approximately 40 feet from the pavement edge, 30 feet if behind a guardrail and undulating up to 50 feet only under special circumstances to create a safety zone established over the years based on the study of accidents.

These trees are far more than aesthetic, even in states such as my adopted home of North Carolina where they cover more than 14% of the 91,000 acres along Interstates here and reinforce a critical part of the state’s sense of place and appeal for tourism and to expanding or relocating businesses.

Careful management of roadside trees is far more important than just aesthetics, although that is critical to economic development such as tourism.  Assuming each tree lives 50 years and isn’t scarified for outdoor billboards, it will exhale 6,000 pounds of oxygen in its life, or about 120 pounds per year.

The trees along roadsides also hold, cleanse and slowly release storm runoff, mitigating the hazards created by the impervious surface of the roadways such as pollution and soil erosion.

Trees along the National Highway System also block particulates and along with other vegetation currently sequester 91 million metric tons of carbon, moderating climate change.  They currently capture another 3.6 million metric tons of carbon each year or the equivalent of emissions by 2.6 million passenger cars.

Like it or not, those who steward these publicly-owned roadsides are in the forestry management business.  Because trees age out and reach a maximum for the carbon they can hold, it is important that roadside maintenance includes effective, on-going reforestation and afforestation of areas where trees do not exist.

This is why Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush (the first President Bush for you youngsters) announced the creation of the America The Beautiful program to plant a billion trees a year including many along roadsides during a State of the Union address delivered just a few months after I moved to North Carolina:

“This year's budget provides… a new initiative I call America the Beautiful to… plant a billion trees a year.”

The plan was for 30 million of those billion trees to be planted in urban areas.  I can’t find a report on the results of the program which isn’t a good sign.  Recent administrations, including this one, have seemed to waiver from being disengaged to surrendering our roadsides to blight, as legislators and the Governor have done in this state.

Trees are an imperfect solution because they release carbon once they die or are cut, but we need every solution we can get to help us deal with the threats we face across so many fronts.

Hopefully the agencies responsible for managing roadsides both at the federal and state levels as well as those managing urban forests will become re-energized from what has seemed to be a malaise and lack of passion over the last decade.

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