Trees absorb rainwater, prevent soil erosion, filter greenhouse gases from the air, cool the surrounding area, provide both habitat and food for wildlife, and improve the quality of life for human beings. Trees are also at the centre of efforts to promote environmental justice within cities by making their allocation of green space more equitable. For now, it’s still possible to measure the relative wealth of an urban neighbourhood simply by counting its trees.
From 2008 to 2016, Davidson County lost the equivalent of 918 acres of trees, approximately 13 per cent of our tree canopy. Even in this age of profound climate disruption, when a community’s tree canopy is directly related to its climate resilience, nobody knows how many trees have been lost in the last five years. Nobody has counted.
Chances are, you’ve become at least a little bit worried about deforestation. You’re probably aware of the role forests in general play in protecting global biodiversity, and of the role the Amazon basin specifically plays in stabilising the global climate. The idea that the Amazon is being burnt to the ground to turn the rainforest into fields for cattle grazing — cattle destined to become hamburgers — likely strikes you as the kind of moral abomination that might as well be called a mortal sin.
It can be overwhelming to consider the magnitude of the obstacles involved in protecting the world’s forests, especially when those forests are being felled because human beings have need of timber, or grazing land, or homesites, or cornfields. We certainly have the power to stop eating imported beef, but many of the world’s remaining forests exist in places far beyond the reach of political or economic pressure by ordinary Americans.
What is definitely within our reach is the kind of activism the people of Nashville have begun to show in protecting the urban forest: establishing mechanisms to monitor the health of trees, to protect as many as possible, to replace those that cannot be saved, to halt environmentally unsustainable growth.
We still have a long, long way to go — there are no regulations here that protect trees on private property, for example — but there are signs now that many in this community understand the risks we face as the climate calamity unfolds. Residents are finally summoning the will to preserve what they can, and if construction-besotted Nashville can do that, any city can do it.
Urban green space plays a less profound role than great forests in limiting temperature rise, it’s true, but it plays an outsize role in protecting communities from the worst effects of a changing climate. “Trees are, quite simply, the most effective strategy, technology, we have to guard against heat in cities,” Brian Stone Jr., a professor of environmental planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Times reporter Catrin Einhorn.
The National Public Lands Day offers a great chance for Americans to participate in cleanup, trail maintenance and awareness-raising efforts at our treasured national parks, forests and marine estuaries, among other public lands. The celebration is particularly apt this year, as the pandemic reminds us again and again of how crucial natural areas are as safe places to gather, or as a source of solitude, quiet and calm.
With any luck it will also remind us that such places were not saved from development by accident. It took enormous political will to create them. It will also take enormous political will to preserve and enlarge them.
Here in the United States we have spent decades wringing our hands about deforestation in the developing world, despite having done an incredibly poor job of managing our own old-growth lands. Now is the time to protect what’s left of the forests here at home, including the pocket parks and urban trees that cool our concrete jungles.
The future of the planet depends, in part, on every tree we can save.
— Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
The New York Times