Forest Service study shows major U.S. cities losing tree cover, but active tree planting can stem the tide

Earlier this month, Texas was reported to have lost 5.6 million urban trees due to last summer’s drought. Now, the U.S. Forest Service reports that the tree canopy in many other cities are similarly under stress.

In 17 of the 20 cities analyzed, tree cover declined, while impervious cover such as pavement and concrete increased in 16 of the 20. The cities experiencing the highest percentage of lost tree cover were Houston, Albuquerque and New Orleans. One city, Syracuse, New York, experienced a slight increase in existing tree cover, but that was due largely to the spread of the invasive European buckthorn.

Overall, existing tree cover in U.S. cities is declining by about 0.9 percent annually, and it comes at a cost. According to Forest Service estimates, urban trees provide a benefit worth three times the cost of tree care. Communities do not want to lose these benefits, which include reduced heating and cooling costs and improved storm water management, on top of the less quantifiable boost to quality of life.

There is some good news, however. The Forest Service study also showed that active tree planting and maintenance efforts are already making a difference. Said Forest researcher  David Nowak: “Tree cover loss would be higher if not for the tree planting efforts cities have undertaken in the past several years.”

To reverse the trend, continued tree planting and more active and comprehensive efforts to sustain urban tree canopies will be required.

Saving urban trees will take a lot of work, but thousands of communities – particularly the 3,462 currently designed as a Tree City USA – have already shown they are up to the task.

Photo credit: TreesAtlanta, via the U.S. Forest Service.

Florida Gulf Coast University students excited to plant 40 trees on campus quad

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend a tree planting event at Florida Gulf Coast University near Ft. Myers. The event was held on Florida Arbor Day – January 20 – and drew several dozen students, with 40 laurel oak trees planted.

It’s difficult to overstate how much the campus needed those trees. Library Lawn always had the potential to be a great place to study, socialize, or reflect, were it not for the beating sun.Students broke into a sweat just from crossing the quad.

The shade provided by the 40 new trees will help make Library Lawn a campus destination.

Florida Gulf Coast University, a Tree Campus USA for three years in a row, has been a terrific partner for the Arbor Day Foundation and a model for others. Vikki McConnell, assistant director of the campus physical plant staff, and Keishla Negron, a senior and student government sustainability director, have been especially vital.

“Tree Campus USA really helped lay the foundation for the nucleus of our campus,” Negron told me.

Tim Clark of the Campus Relations and Marketing Team put together a video that nicely captures the energy and excitement of last month’s event. Take a look below.

Summer drought costs Texas 5.6 million urban trees

A new report from the Texas Forest Service found that cities in the Lone Star State lost 5.6 million trees due to drought last year. The trees, comprising 10 percent of Texas’ urban forest, had become “too thirsty to live,” as the Austin American-Statesman put it.

The drought’s impact on trees has put Texas officials in a tough spot. The same report detailing the lost trees also pointed to $280 million in annual environmental and economic benefit from trees, and that’s in addition to the qualitative benefits. It’s hard to put a numeric value on the thousands of missing pine trees from Houston Memorial Park, for instance, but their loss is undoubtedly felt.

In urban areas especially, trees play a critical role in shading buildings and streets, reducing the risk of flooding and keeping pollution down.

Removing trees is expensive, though well worth the cost to avoid risking a fall on a car, a power line or a home. Getting rid of dead or dying trees will cost the state of Texas $560 million dollars, the report says.

Texas’ large metropolitan areas, such as Houston, Dallas and Austin (above), currently have a total of 60 million trees.

Last summer is on record as one of the longest and driest in Texas history, and the trend looks likely to continue. Broader changes in climate cannot be solved at the local level alone, but there is a lot that cities can do to mitigate the damage.

In Austin, for instance, the Texas live oak has been more drought-resistant because its natural reserves are a good fit for the area. City Arborist Michael Embesi told the American-Statesman that Austin had already shifted to planting less water-dependent trees in preparation for last summer. Planting the right species at the right time definitely helps.

Cities are strapped for resources, making watering trees a challenge, but the right infrastructure could tap dirty water – from car washes, local reservoirs or excess rain that would otherwise end up down the storm drain – during the summer. Additional watering will assist trees on the margins of survival in making it through the dry season.

It’s also beneficial to plan for replacing older trees.

Solutions like these emerge from a sustained commitment to managing urban trees. Texas already has 72 Tree City USAs, including most of its largest cities, so it is clear that both motivation and resources exist to respond to these challenges, along with the passion of concerned professionals and the communities they serve.

You can find out more about the Texas Forest Service’s study here.

Photo courtesy of Fine Austin Living.


Alabama Tree Recovery Campaign kicks off tree distribution in 16 tornado-damaged communities

Last Monday, the Alabama Tree Recovery Campaign kicked-off the distribution of thousands of trees for people impacted by the April 27 tornado that swept North Alabama.

The Campaign launch was held at the former location of Mike and Ed’s Barbecue in downtown Tuscaloosa, a site plainly and visibly damaged to this day.

Alabama First Lady Dianne Bentley and Mayor Walter Maddox headlined the event and were joined by Alabama Assistant State Forester Patrick Glass and the Arbor Day Foundation’s Dan Lambe. The Campaign was launched in June by the Arbor Day Foundation the Alabama Forestry Commission as a multi-year, large-scale initiative to restore North Alabama’s community trees to their pre-tornado strength.

Several local mayors and state legislators also showed up at the event to lend their support.

In all, 16 communities will receive 30,000 trees this month in the first phase of this campaign, and the distribution is already underway.

This past weekend, the Birmingham News reported that the Pleasant Grove Boy Scout troop is giving back to its community by helping to hand out 3,000 seedlings. And, the local newspaper in Cullman, Alabama, whose downtown absorbed enormous damage, published a moving editorial about the importance of restoring community forests.

“Throughout Cullman, residents have long been proud of the old trees that shaded yards and portions of the commercial district, which added to the beauty of the area,” the Cullman Times editorialized, adding:

Trees are one of the notable defining features in many communities. The presence of this natural beauty enhances neighborhoods, business areas and the general livability of the community. Bringing the pleasant beauty of trees back to the storm-ravaged areas will go a long way toward rebuilding the beauty and spirit of the community.

The editorial dovetails nicely with this CBS 42 report on how the new trees are making a real difference for Cullman families who are faced with a barren landscape and are looking forward to replacing what they have lost.

The Alabama Tree Recovery Campaign is just getting started, and we’ll keep coming back to distribute trees until North Alabama’s canopy is fully restored.

Help us out if you can by making a donation at

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Forestry Commission.

New hardiness zone maps reflect rising temperatures, and trees are part of the solution

For years, Arbor Day Foundation members have told us the climate conditions for tree planting were changing. According to last week’s release of new plant hardiness zones from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they’re right.

A hardiness zone documents the average lowest winter temperature in a given region. This is key information for growing, as it determines what level of cold-related stress a tree can handle.

The official map was long overdue for an overhaul. Those who had relied on the USDA’s 1990 map found it to be severely out of date, prompting the Arbor Day Foundation to produce its own map in 2006 to more accurately reflect conditions in backyards and neighborhoods across the country.

The shift, for most of the country, is palpable. A comparison between the USDA’s 1990 map and the Arbor Day Foundation’s 2006 map reveals large swaths of the country moving up a zone (see below) The new 2012 USDA map broadly resembles what the Arbor Day Foundation map indicated back in 2006.

Here in Nebraska, most of the state used to be in Zone 4 but is now in Zone 5, signifying a shift in the interval of coldest average temperature from between -30 and -20 to between -20 and -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Zone 11 used to be limited to Hawaii, but now can be found in parts of Southern California and Florida.

While a shift by one zone doesn’t always have a huge impact on what can grow, it definitely matters at the margins. For instance, the Yoshino Flowering Cherry Tree, a favorite in Washington, DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival, is recommended for hardiness zones 5 through 8. Colder areas like New England and the upper Midwest that shifted from Zone 4 to Zone 5 can now conceivably plant Yoshinos in their backyards. (You can also purchase your own cherry tree – and cast your vote for America’s Favorite Cherry Tree).

Another example: The Southern Magnolia thrives in Zones 6 through 10. Twenty years, it could not have grown in most of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, but now it can be considered by an adventurous tree planter in his or her yard. Or, take the Arizona Cypress, a zone 7 through 9. Now it is now a viable choice in much of New Mexico and Texas.

The warming indicated by the new map has inevitably renewed discussion about climate change. This is a worthy topic, especially as trees are acknowledged as part of the solution.

When we plant trees in our yard, they immediately go to work for us. The shade provided by trees during hot summer days not only makes life more comfortable, it also reduces the energy consumed through air conditioning by as much as 40 percent. In winter time, well-placed trees can block bitter winds, resulting in reduced energy use from heating. And, a parking lot with 50 percent shading can eliminate one ton of emissions per day, while extending the life of the pavement.

When households demand less energy, we save precious resources and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change because utility companies save energy during periods of peak demand. When mature trees absorb carbon dioxide in urban areas, harmful pollutants are removed from the atmosphere and are naturally regenerated.

Many Americans are excited to explore new species of tree previously untenable in their region. Purchasing and planting trees is also a low-tech and low-cost way to mitigate an enormous environmental challenge.

You can check out the USDA’s updated map, or visit the Arbor Day Foundation’s online nursery and simply enter your zip code to see what trees are a good fit for your area.

Welcome to the new Arbor Day Foundation blog

After a bit of a hiatus, we’re blogging again at the Arbor Day Foundation.

The blog gives us a chance to discuss current events of interest, share stories and talk about what we’re doing, in a format that is more inviting and informal than a press release.

In the coming weeks, we’ll discuss the January release of new plant hardiness zones from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, commemorate a successful tree planting event at Florida Gulf Coast University during the state’s Arbor Day and hear a first-hand perspective on how the Foundation’s shade-grown coffee is making a difference in Central America.

We hope you’ll visit us again soon.