Saturday, April 26, 2014

Environmental Injustice

I felt slightly better when I rode the Harley Cross Bones again past the devastation I wrote about last week.  It had already been reforested by acres of loblolly pine seedlings.

This pine plantation will never replace the mixed forest that was clear cut, including hardwoods that had been growing there for a hundred or more years, but pines grow fast and will be timbered again before long.

A church owns the property and used the sale of the timber to earn funds.  To its credit, the congregation retained a consulting forester as well as receiving a management plan from state foresters assigned to each county.

All foresters aren’t abreast of the benefits of holistic approach to urban forestry that meticulous research by the U.S. Forest Service has so thoroughly documented over the last 25 years.

Those educated earlier still view trees only as commodities to be harvested and urban forest as merely street trees.

Ironic, that in a state for whom trees are pivotal to its brand, tax incentives drive property owners to deforest rather than retain forests.

Likely aided or enabled by some old school foresters not up to speed on the science behind urban forests, a few “regressives” in the state legislature now want to also take away the ability of communities to foster retention of urban forest canopy.  .

Science, public health and local resident values be damned.

Still, foresters assigned to each county usually do their best, for now, to abide by local ordinances and to be respectful of local values.

The fact that these huge areas were completely denuded of all trees and vegetation reflects that Durham tree, soil and watershed ordinances in both the city and county are far from adequate.

I’m sure the property owner in this case was advised on the option of selective harvesting which, if done properly, would leave a mix of mature and growing species and still leave room for reseeding pines.

In the end, in their own interest, but not the community’s, it was the owner’s choice to be so drastic, mitigated by immediate if not biodiverse reforestation.

This example, along with one a few months earlier down on New Hope Creek (where replanting apparently was never contemplated) confirm that Durham doesn’t even require something county-wide as simple as retention of a few feet of token tree buffer along all roadways.

This would not just be for scenic preservation and visitor-centric appeal, but more importantly, to slow storm runoff, cleanse and sequester air pollutants and inhibit particulates.  It would also protect the reforested seedlings.

The soil erosion ordinances also seem less than adequate.  It will take decades now before trees will be able to safeguard the earth.  If you take this lightly, look again at what clear cutting caused in Oso last month.

Both clear cutting and selective cutting are legitimate techniques but must be done judiciously with a full awareness to mitigate any harm to others or the environment and the preservation of groves.  In an urban area clear cutting just has too many downsides.

Of course, even if Durham’s ordinances were “best practice,” any outcome would be totally reliant on how the passion and energy with which they were communicated and enforced, something found far too lacking among most of today’s public servants.

Regulations protect the public as well as guide property owners to mitigate actions shown to be harmful to others.  This at the very nexus of liberty and individual rights laid out at the dawn of this nation by John Stuart Mill.

Environmental justice is an important issue today in urban forestry, “an ethical principle that environmental benefits and burdens should be equitably distributed across society.”

This includes tree-planting programs such as the joint city-county initiative “Trees Across Durham.”  A new study sheds light on why a few in the legislature seem bent on deforesting all of North Carolina, beginning a few years ago with roadsides and now honed in on the urban forests of cities and counties.

A review of campaign contributions for these individuals recently reveals the outsized influence of special interests, including out-of-state billboard companies, formula or chain restaurants and power companies who begrudge communities struggling to preserve the vestiges of sense of place and appeal.

These special interests “vote” each and every day as they buttonhole legislators in the hallways of the people’s chamber while the “people” are limited to voting every few years.

Whenever I try to understand lawmakers bent on destroying forests and North Carolina’s sense of place I am reminded of insight given by the author of “The True Believer:

"A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."

The reason Eric Hoffer’s pocket size book is still popular more than six decades after it was published is that it provides keen insight into movements such as the regressives who control North Carolina today.

He sheds light on why this movement was able to seize power by playing rural North Carolinians against its cities, which over the span since The True Believer was first published, had turned the state’s image around.

Noted in Hoffer’s book is also why the less affluent and educated fall victim to movements such as the one bent on dramatically reversing North Carolina’s image as a place to live, visitor or do business to one as backward.

Recent research by foresters even found this phenomena present in a study of volunteers who tree-plant in urban forests.  They found that “a volunteer tree-planting program has more success in areas of higher socioeconomic status which already tend to have more, and better maintained, environmental amenities.”

As happened to so many parts of North Carolina, the benefits from decades of progress were unevenly distributed.  But rather than emulate the places propelled forward, their emissaries now seek to pull everyone in the entire state back several decades.  And what better way than to wreak havoc on the environment?

There is no evidence that those at the state level seeking to improve North Carolina’s brand mean more than just switching out a superficial logo and tagline, more a change of clothes than marketing.

But regardless, their efforts have already been made nil, undermined especially along roadsides which make the state’s first and last impressions on visitors, including the prospective deliverers of new jobs.

Of course this desecration is in violation of state and federal law as well as an amendment voters overwhelmingly approved to the state constitution more than four decades ago.

Special interests such as billboard companies have made any enforcement mute, if not lethargic, by hamstringing executive action and pushing lawmakers of all persuasions with financial incentives over that same span to apply what experts call “legal corruption.”

But even if federal law, which limits placement of billboards to areas deemed commercial in the mid-1960s were enforced, you would find them creating environmental injustice to those with lower socioeconomic status.

Even as barriers to Civil Rights were being taken down back then, urban housing policies began re-segregating the poor, stranding them in “out of sight, out of mind” tree, food and transportation deserts.

The current news media fixation is on gentrification as the culprits, but this fails to understand what housing policy expert and “City Notes” blogger Daniel Hertz describes, which is that it is impossible not to be a gentrifier today.

While racially segregated when they were created, historic neighborhoods in Durham like the one where I live were otherwise and purposefully a far better mix of poor, middle and moneyed classes.  As racial barriers dissolved, underlying policies re-segregated them using social economics.

Durham, which is highly regarded for its ethic and socioeconomic diversity, may have been no exception.  Its first “poor neighborhood” created by a mill closing in the early 1930s was a “white neighborhood.”

Today it is still poor, but integrated.  It is also the site of a billboard and deforestation recently enabled by the state legislature.

But judging by resistance to tree-planting efforts there, we can’t rely on poor people to always see through this environmental injustice or to get through the manipulation by regressives.”

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