Trees: Taking Up Space Since 385 Million B.C.

Many articles have been written on the threat to Atlanta’s tree canopy and urban tree canopies in general. The latest is from Scientific American, which highlights a new study in the May issue of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening that found the country lost 175,000 acres of tree cover last year, mostly in urban and suburban areas. Unfortunately, Georgia was in the top 5 of states that lost the most tree cover. The lead author of the study, David Nowak, estimates this loss equates to about $96 million in lost benefits. That number, though, is limited to an analysis of the benefits that are easy to quantify, such as the sequestration of carbon by trees and the conservation of energy due to the shading of buildings provided by trees.

Trees provide a number of benefits beyond those that are easy to quantify in economic terms. In addition to generating oxygen, removing pollution from the air, and providing shade, trees have been shown to dramatically reduce the urban heat island effect, reduce stress, and spur creativity. A recent study found that increased exposure to tree cover around a pregnant woman’s home reduced the likelihood she would have a low-birthweight baby. Other studies have found a positive correlation between life expectancy and exposure to green spaces.

Philadelphia recently realized that instead of building a massive underground tunnel to collect stormwater in order to comply with an EPA mandate, it could just plant trees since they did the same thing. The city’s consultant estimated that the tunnel would provide $122 million in benefits over 40 years while the trees would provide $2.5 billion in benefits over that same time period.

Cutting a Tree Could Be Compared to Polluting a River

Perhaps we should think about trees, particularly those in urban areas, in the same way we think about water. The prevailing common-law water rule in much of the eastern part of the country states that if a stream runs through multiple pieces of property, upstream property owners must respect the right of the downstream property owners to use and access the water; meaning they aren’t free to completely divert, drain, or pollute the water.

Trees are a little different than streams in that we do own them and they don’t freely move across property lines, but, like water, trees provide an abundance of benefits to people who don’t own them. In that sense, an owner’s ability to cut down any tree on their property shouldn’t be viewed in the same way as an owner’s ability to tear down their backyard shed, which provides little benefit to anyone other than the owner.

We should have a similar hesitation in allowing someone to cut down a tree as we would have in allowing someone to divert or pollute a stream. If one property owner dumps a liter of oil in a river then perhaps downstream users suffer little harm. Of course, if all upstream users dump a liter of oil in the river then downstream users are severely harmed.

Clearly, some trees need to be cut down, such as those that are diseased or dangerous, and we should give property owner’s the ability to cut down some trees, but those instances need to be the exception, not the rule. Ordinances that are too restrictive in allowing for the removal of trees could undermine our ability to provide more affordable housing in urban areas. That idea, though, is premised on people removing trees to build more housing units and not additional sunrooms.

Georgia Severely Penalizes Those Who Cut Down Trees

Georgia law allows a property owner to seek treble damages from someone who cuts down the owner’s tree without authorization. This is a deviation from normal tort law since minimum damages are generally not set at a higher value than the market value of the damaged property. While the impetus for the 2014 law was largely based in a desire to protect the timber industry from illegal cutting and not in a desire to protect urban trees, setting the damages at three times the value of the tree is an acknowledgment that trees are more valuable than their sticker price. We should have that same mindset when debating local and state policies regarding the voluntary removal of one’s own tree.

Atlanta’s extensive tree ordinance largely adopts this mindset, though it sometimes faces criticism from those who find it too onerous. But it should be onerous, particularly for those who aren’t adding to the housing stock, but are simply looking for more grass in their yard. Atlanta is a desirable destination partially because its ‘City in the Forest’ title isn’t just a hollow marketing ploy.

The southern United States is more than just cheap living and warm weather. Its lush environment and natural beauty confront us the moment we step out our doors, providing benefits that aren’t necessarily quantifiable or consciously observed, but are constantly present. Without a strong stance to protect these benefits, we’ll one day wake up to the realization that we’re living in an indiscernible place void of any character, charm, or tranquility.



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