by Scott Smith, Communications Director

Trees are the best ready-made tools we have to help combat the climate crisis. As Nicole Rivard writes in Leave Trees Standing, the cover story for FoA’s Action Line Winter 2021-22 issue, forests “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.” 

Sadly, the world has now lost one-third of its forest cover since human society arrived on the scene, and fully half of that loss has occurred in just the past century. And “deforestation” isn’t something happening only in faraway places: the U.S. is facing a projected loss of 8.3% in urban tree cover by 2060, as a result of development, storms and insects.  

Until the U.S. makes halting deforestation a top prioity, the next best thing we can do is plant new trees. But as is the case with all real estate, location is the key. 

The Biden Administration thinks it knows where trees should be planted for them to do the most good – not just for carbon sequestration but also to provide a host of important benefits, from filtering air pollution and providing flood mitigation to improving human health and reducing societal inequality. 

The Build Back Better Act includes $2.5 billion for investing in “community tree canopy,” emphasizing urban areas, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. 

Cue the snark for this worthy, science-based effort to promote “tree equity”: Senate Republicans dismissed the $2.5 billion tree-planting project as a questionable “earmark for Democrat interests and allies.” The headline writers at The New York Times labeled it a “niche item,” and The Daily Signal, a news organ for the conservation Heritage Foundation, opined “it’s wrong for the federal government to forcibly subsidize urban areas at the expense of rural and suburban areas.” 

Funny, but I’ve never heard the Heritage Foundation complain about, oh, say, the sweetheart deal the Feds “force” on the Rock Springs Grazing Association in Wyoming, which for decades has fattened up massive numbers of cattle on public lands at the cut-rate cost of $1.35 per cow-calf pair per month, a fraction of the $23.40 a month average charged for private land grazing. Talk about welfare moms! 

The need for tree equity is very real, addressing it is long overdue and achieving it will provide benefits that will only increase as the Build Back Better trees mature.  

Wealthy Americans enjoy almost 50 percent more greenery in their neighborhoods compared with lower-income communities. “In most U.S. cities, marginalized communities lack equitable access to nature and green space,” Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation told Reuters. “As a result, they face diminished health and disproportionate exposure to urban heat islands and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change.”  

Extreme heat has killed more people than any other weather-related disaster in the U.S. over the past 30 years. The deaths are often concentrated in the most vulnerable communities. Urban heat islands also overlap with maps of redlined neighborhoods, places where Black Americans and other minorities were pushed to move over the past century because of discriminatory housing practices, reports Justine Calma for The Verge. Physician-scientists at the Urban Health Lab cite a study of 108 U.S. cities that determined the difference in temperature between the hottest and the coolest neighborhoods was as great as 13° F, much of it attributable to uneven distribution in the tree canopy. 

To help determine where a major tree-planting initiative in Houston could best focus its efforts, researchers at Rice University established how pollution in certain areas causes preventable asthma attacks in schoolchildren. They also relied on previous studies, including one that linked Houston ozone levels to cardiac arrests, to create maps that showed where mass plantings would have the most impact on neighborhood health in addition to boosting water absorption and carbon sequestration.  

Other partners, including the nonprofit Houston Wilderness, investigated which tree species performed best at soaking up pollutants, providing flood mitigation and reducing heat on the ground and ultimately ranked the live oak and sycamore as the top performers in a list of 17 “super trees.” To date, the program has planted 15,000 trees on both public and private property in strategically placed groves in neglected neighborhoods.   

“We need to make sure the trees go where the people are,” said Jad Daley, president and chief executive officer of American Forests, the non-profit which claims to have coined the term “tree equity.”  

A conservation group founded in 1875, American Forests has developed a free online tool, called the Tree Equity Score, that calculates a score for all 150,000 neighborhoods and 486 municipalities in urbanized areas across the continental United States — cities and nearby small towns that have at least 50,000 people. More than 70% of the U.S. population lives in these urban places. 

Each score indicates whether there are enough trees in a neighborhood for everyone to experience the health, economic and climate benefits that trees provide. Scores are based on tree canopy, surface temperature, income, employment, race, age and health factors. A 0-to-100-point system makes it easy to understand how a community fares. Click on this link: 

See Your City’s Tree Equity Score

According to the American Forests’ mapping tool, the cities that will benefit the most from achieving tree equity include Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Fresno, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York City, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose. 

Beyond saving lives, cooling from urban trees already reduces home energy use 7.2 percent on average, saving homeowners more than $7 billion. These trees scrub 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and 820,000 tons of air pollution per year, claims American Forests, which leads to health-care savings of $1.6 billion a year from things like asthma-related emergency room visits avoided by breathing less polluted air. 

Achieving Tree Equity nationwide would require planting 522 million trees in metropolitan areas, says American Forests. Doing so would sustain 3.8 million jobs and annually absorb 9.3 million tons of carbon — the equivalent of taking 92 million cars off the roads. As the trees mature, they would mitigate 56,613 tons of particle pollution annually. 

“Much like streets and electrical lines, trees are essential infrastructure,” says Eric Candela, senior manager of American Forests’ Community ReLeaf program, in an interview with NPJ’s L.J. Frank. “They are vital to the health, wealth and well-being of communities.”