Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Future of Trees

It's difficult for most people to get really excited about trees because our planet seems to have so many of them.  However, recently, I have become more and more upset about the plight of trees and, consequently, the future of human beings.

I don't know if it's a product of living on the East Coast of the United States, but I remember when I was a little girl living in Boston and they used to say that within my lifetime the entire Eastern seaboard would become so urbanized that all of the major cities, Boston, Providence, Hartford, New York City, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington, would soon become merged into one giant mega-city.  Urban sprawl between the cities would eventually overlap and knit together.  Well, that day has arrived.  We have finally arrived at what has been called the "megalopolis."  In 2,000, this part of the country was home to about 17% of the U.S. population living on less than 2% of the nation’s land area.

But my concern is much smaller.  I have noticed that in recent decades, as part of our urbanization, we are all clearing and cutting down trees to make way for parking lots, malls, commercial areas, gas stations, and new homes.  We replace these forests with a few token trees - and they are almost always little, stumpy ornamental trees, like flowering cherry trees, dogwoods or tiny Japanese maples.  We are not replacing our giant shade trees - if and when we replace our trees at all!  These trees might be pretty in the springtime, but they are more like bushes than trees and do not provide shade, shelter or protection from the increasingly violent and hot weather we are experiencing as our planet's heat has been dramatically climbing.  It is like decorating your living room with colorful accent pillows instead of a sofa and chairs!  Pretty, but useless!

We aren't really interested in "ordinary" tall shade trees like oaks, pine, beech, sugar maple, hickory, or black walnut (this last tree used to be abundant in New Jersey, it still is treasured in the wood paneling in some older homes, but is basically extinct in our area now).   We are far more interested in making sure that people can see our store sign from the road, or that we have a big front lawn with no trees so people can see how wealthy we are, or that we spend as little money as possible leveling a flat, tree-less parking lot for the lowest cost.  Perhaps commercial real estate owners don't like the potential liability of a tree branch falling on a car or figure they can get more parking spaces by eliminating trees.

Let me give you a rather shocking statistic.  The average tree lives between 60-80 years old, but the average urban tree today lives only 8 years.  Why?  They are sicker from pollution and we cut them down every time we want to put up a more modern building and replace them with younger trees.  Do you see the problem here?

The bottom line is that we are not interested in trees.  I was quite shocked when I finally realized that all those lovely little pockets of wildlife and forests that I see from the highway are actually, when viewed from the air, nothing but thin, isolated patches of trees between streets and homes.  I know it sounds strange, but here in New Jersey, we are living in the future.  Montana, Alabama, Texas, and the other states may not look anything like New Jersey today - but they will in the near future.  And the future shows me that we are running out of time. 

Consider this:  In the past 10 years alone, human beings have cut down enough trees to forest an area the size of the country of Peru!  In order to reforest what we have cut down in only a decade, every man, woman and child on earth will have to plant and care for 2 trees every year for ten years!  That's to make up for the loss of 14 billion trees.  We are not slowing down our tree-cutting today.  We are cutting them down even faster.  And we are not replanting them at a proportional rate for the reasons I listed above.  We are 1) vain and 2) greedy and 3) trees are "free." 

Planting trees around your home (and I do not mean tiny ornamental flowing trees) increases your property value by between 10-20 percent, and can reduce your air conditioning needs by 30 percent and save up to 50 percent on your home heating bills.  One young tree next to your house is equal to 10 air conditioning units operating 20 hours/day.  One young tree can absorb all the carbon emitting by driving your car 26,000 miles in a year.

So, you do not have to be clairvoyant to understand the future of trees and therefore of human beings.  Plant a tree today.