by Nicole Rivard
While Friends of Animals’ work spans the globe, last spring it hit close to home— literally outside our Darien, Connecticut headquarters.
On May 3, a crew from the Public Works Department began removing the first of four healthy trees abutting sidewalks around our office—a plan put in place because someone sued the town after tripping on a nearby sidewalk.
We stood in front of the second tree—a 100-year-old sycamore— forcing the crew to leave until town officials could hear our reasons for opposing the dreadful plan.
“If communities start cutting down healthy trees because of a philosophy of ‘someone might trip,’ this planet is doomed,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals.
“What about the public safety issue of the climate crisis and the negative environmental impact of cutting down healthy legacy trees? They store carbon, provide oxygen and habitat for wildlife and plants, provide shade and prevent erosion. What we witnessed was a crime against nature and humanity.”
Unfortunately, the town eventually dismembered the sycamore and a third tree. However, at press time, the fourth tree, a stately old oak, remains standing. When confronted, the head of public works boasted that the town plants new trees when they cut any down. However, he can’t see the forest for the trees.
The planting of the right trees correctly—i.e., choosing native trees, a diverse mix of species, making sure there’s enough room for roots and providing adequate water—is something FoA supports, but the truth is experts are warning that we cannot plant our way out of the climate crisis.
That’s why on Arbor Day this year, which Americans have been celebrating for 149 years by planting trees, Karen Holl, professor of restoration ecology at University of California, urged the public to protect the trees we already have. “We felt it was important to tell people that planting trees is not a substitute for protecting intact forests or for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Holl. “We also wanted to explain that successful tree planting requires careful planning and a long-term commitment.”
Forests are crucial to combatting the climate crisis. They absorb one-third of the CO2 emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. On the flip side, cutting down and degrading forests contributes around 12% of global emissions, according to estimates from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The older trees are the better.
While trees start capturing carbon as soon as they are planted, the amount is quite small for the first few years. “After 20-30 years, they will be capturing quite a lot of carbon every year, but it still takes at least 100 years for a broad-leaf tree or about 60 years for a conifer to reach maturity, where they have captured and are storing as much carbon as mature trees in an existing forest,” explained Allison Smith, co-author of a new University of Oxford review of nature-based solutions to climate change.
The biggest and oldest trees are also more valuable in terms of biodiversity. “They provide hollows, cracks and crevices that insects, birds, bats and small mammals can use for food, nesting and hibernation sites, and dead wood that supports fungi,” Smith explained.
“So, loss of existing trees and forests is devastating for both wildlife and the climate.”
Holl’s warning was prompted by a high-profile paper published in the journal Science in 2020 that featured global maps of how much carbon could be sequestered by planting trees. The maps were criticized because they suggested planting trees in some places that were historically grasslands or areas that are used to produce food.
“In other words, they over-promised how much area is available for planting trees,” explained Holl.
Planting trees in the wrong place can do more harm than good. In native grasslands, such as North American prairies or African savannas, planting trees can damage these valuable ecosystems, according to Holl.
In the U.K., a government approved tree-planting project on 100 acres of peat bog—peatlands are the world’s most efficient carbon sink— had to be halted. The rows of conifer trees acted like straws, sucking up water and drying out the soil. As the soil dried out, thousands of years’ worth of carbon started to be released.
“Tree planting is one small piece of the puzzle. We need to understand that we cannot recreate forests,” Holl said. “I have spent my life studying how to restore forests. Nonetheless, I will be the first to say that protecting intact forests is more important, as it is incredibly difficult to restore ecosystems; we will never get back entirely what was there before, and it will take decades or centuries.”
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
FoA recently visited 650 acres of upland forest and 125 acres of forested wetlands at Deer Pond Farm in Sherman, a Connecticut Audubon Society property bequeathed by the Kathryn D. Wriston estate.
We saw some elders of the Eastern forest, also known as wolf trees, because they are considered lone wolves, outlaws in the face of civilization. The 150- to 200-year-old white oaks were the ones spared the axe during widespread deforestation to provide shade for livestock or mark a boundary, according to David Beers, service forester for the Western District of the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Their massive trunks and far-reaching branches outstretched like arms felt welcoming and comforting. We felt firsthand how trees reduce anxiety and blood pressure. Yep, it’s been proven.
“Kathy loved these trees and visited them regularly,” said Beers. “She paid to have all of them cabled on the property so they wouldn’t fall down.”
Wildlife loves them too, Beers pointed out during a tree identification walk. “All sorts of insects love thick bark like this. And all sorts of birds feed on the insects,” he said.
Conservation biologist Michael Gaige recorded that foraging birds visited wolf trees 20 times more often than they visited typical forest trees. Overall, 22 species of birds fed on or from wolf trees, compared with seven species in other forest trees. He also documented 106 incidents from 11 mammal species at wolf trees compared to 77 incidents from five species at other forest trees.
Legacy trees are responsible for seeding new forest and they are vital to tree-fungi networks—the underground life—of a forest. Underneath the forest floor, intertwined with the roots of the trees, is a fascinating microscopic network of fungus, Beers explained.
Typically, legacy trees have the most fungal connections. Their roots can reach deeper sources of water to pass on to younger saplings. Through mycelium, the tiny threads of the fungi, they can detect the ill health of their neighbors from distress signals and send them needed nutrients.
“Think of this old-growth white oak tree as Newark International Airport. And that little 12-inch oak over there is a town road,” Beers said. “This old-growth tree has so much activity going on and provides so much for the forest.”
HOW YOUR TOWN CAN BE PART OF THE SOLUTION
Over 141 million acres of America’s forests are located right in our cities and towns, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They include urban parks, street trees, river and coastal promenades, wetlands, nature preserves and more.
However, only 39 percent of American municipalities have programs to systematically care for their publicly owned trees, according to studies cited by The Arbor Day Foundation.
The organization has been helping municipalities create a framework for a healthy, sustainable urban forestry program through its Tree City USA program since 1974. To qualify, communities must have a tree board or advisory committee; a tree ordinance to regulate various aspects of tree maintenance, removal, and planting resulting in aesthetic and environmental benefits; an annual forestry budget of at least $2 per capita; and an annual Arbor Day observance.
Norwalk, a neighboring town to our Darien office, has had Tree City USA status for 17 years.
“We are like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax who speaks for the trees,” said Erica Kipp, chair of the Norwalk Tree Advisory Committee and professor of biology and environmental science at Norwalk Community College.
The five-member volunteer committee appointed by the mayor is working with city leaders on a “more enlightened” tree ordinance to reflect that allowing a developer or utility company to replace a fully mature tree with a sapling is no longer acceptable. It will also require developers to protect a tree’s root zone during construction and to post a bond before work begins.
The committee also secures grants to help the city plant trees when municipal budgets are tight. Kipp’s advice for starting a tree advisory committee is to sit down with your local government leader—mayor or first selectman—as well as the department of public works, planning and zoning commission and parks and recreation and have meaningful discussions about how to keep the community green.
Her committee recently lined up 20 tree liaisons to work in their neighborhoods, approaching people and suggesting tree plantings in addition to “keeping an eye on things.”
“We help the average person walking down the street understand why a tree should or shouldn’t be taken down,” Kipp said. “We educate people on a tree’s value, so they don’t look at it as leaves to be picked up or the possibility of losing power in a storm.”
Connecticut state law requires municipalities to post a notice at least 10 days prior to tree removal and to hold a public hearing if anyone objects. It’s important to attend public hearings to ask questions, offer alternatives to tree removal and educate the community about environmental, economic, community and health benefits of trees (see sidebar).
“Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he accepted the Society of American Forester’s Forestry Medal back in 1935. Eighty-six years later, his words ring true.