WASHINGTON — The cut-down of a century-old oak tree didn’t just put Washington in the national news. On Wednesday, the news was around the country.
The tree was one of several Washingtonian spruced up by the $23 million city tree care project, which is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. But others, including the Indiana blind dog that arrived with the dead tree and is in need of a new home, took center stage.
At the center of the storm is the fact that trees, and urban trees in particular, are on the decline in American cities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Data Center reports that in 2012 alone, about 1.8 million city-dwelling trees were removed.
Washington DC alone lost more than 300 trees in one fell swoop. At least one of them was beloved pet Bud.https://t.co/NQ8Wag0jtf — Scott Wagner (@scottytwag) June 8, 2016
The New York Times reported that of the 66 cities it surveyed, “about 3 percent were in the process of removing trees of all kinds, according to these cities’ own statistics.” The USDA’s annual count shows a similar trend in the nation’s capital, with the Washington Metropolitan Area Planning Organization’s annual urban forestry directory showing that more than 300 trees were removed in the city in 2015 — from every one of its neighborhoods.
While cities were under intense scrutiny for the cost of the tree removal, most experts give the city credit for being proactive in managing city forests and maintaining a healthy urban canopy.
“At one point, a city might do just thinning,” says Greg Eckles, a research director for the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, “but that is not really so effective.”
Instead, government agencies must continue to invest in efforts like the USDA’s Urban Forestry Care Project, which has helped maintain healthy populations of important natural habitat in seven cities — including Detroit, Little Rock, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle and Chicago.
Here, Eckles explained how climate change impacts Washington and other cities in the D.C. area.
Washingtonian: What are the major trees in the area that you would specifically advise the government to consider removing?
Greg Eckles: …The first one to replace one of these trees is the tree. Another one is more interesting is the lawn, because a lot of cities are replacing these old lawns with concrete. The ones that tend to die are the lawns. Lawns are one of the most common urban trees in the area. They’re the least productive trees. They only provide a certain amount of shade and absorb a certain amount of water. And then they don’t have a lot of ornamental value.
WMC: What’s one particularly interesting research finding you found while you were studying forests in the region?
EG: We have a lot of urban forests in the D.C. area that had been at their peak several decades ago and then actually declined. And that was typically followed by a plateau. … And there’s been a lot of that happening in Washington. … The biggest forest is in southeast D.C. and northwest Virginia. … But in D.C., you’re much more likely to be in an area without the urban forests. You’re in rural areas. You’re in one of the lowest density urban areas in the country.