If you’ve ever heard the story of the Charter Oak Tree and how it helped Connecticut resist the British monarchy, then you know that trees have long been an important aspect of our history. These days, most of our thoughts about trees are centered around this time of year, when we get to enjoy the beauty of autumn as the leaves change over the next few weeks. New England is famous for long drives on winding roads through quaint towns to see the fiery reds and golden yellows of fall.
But tree-canopy coverage has serious implications for public policy and quality of life that are important to consider. Trees have been shown to significantly improve health, but also present a challenge to public safety. Both aspects of trees require serious thought from leaders and policymakers.
To their credit, the state of Connecticut and various municipalities have been thinking about tree canopy coverage for some time. A report from 2010 shows that state officials and local leaders in Hartford have been planning to increase the city’s tree canopy. Trees have numerous beneficial effects. Their shade and transpiration processes offer cooling and decrease energy costs. They remove pollutants and toxins from the air through their process of photosynthesis. Their canopy and leaf coverage slows rainfall, which helps mitigate flooding. And they beautify the areas they grow in.
Thankfully, a recent grant from the federal government is helping to make the dream of increasing tree canopy in Hartford a reality. Connecticut has received over $15 million to plant more trees, with $6 million of that going to the capital city. Other cities receiving funds include New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford, Bridgeport, and Stratford. Hartford officials are hoping to plant 1,500 new trees a year, to increase the city’s tree canopy coverage from 25% to 35% by 2070.
Yet while canopy coverage has clear benefits, there are potential dangers associated with trees, namely the risk of them falling over and causing serious injury and damage. Prof. Thomas Worthley has described the number of large, standing dead trees across the state as a “slow-moving environmental disaster.”
The culprits are a combination of climate change-fueled conditions which have decimated local tree populations. A resurgence of gypsy moth infestations in 2017-2018 (a recurrence of an event that also happened in the 1980’s) has led to the deaths of numerous oak trees, while the spread of the emerald ash borer, a beetle that consumes the wood of the ash tree from the inside out, has had a similar effect on ash tree populations. When combined with drought conditions that have plagued Connecticut over the last 20 years, it’s easy to see that state trees are under a great deal of stress.
How bad is the problem? Prof. Worthley cites a survey of “high potential risk” trees near roads in East Haddam – that is, large trees that are leaning toward the road and risk falling. They found 134 high potential risk trees along 21 miles of road in the town. That data is almost six years old at this point, meaning the problem has most likely gotten worse. Removing those trees will be a massive financial burden as well. At a cost of $500-$1,000 per tree, even a lowball estimate of removing those trees is nearly $70,000.
Finally, the unpredictability of Connecticut’s recent weather continues to exacerbate the previous climate-induced problems. We’ve swung from drought to record rains, with 2021 being the third wettest year on record, and this year with unusual amounts of rain as well. These soaking rains are weakening the soil around massive root systems that are supposed to keep dead and dying trees in place.
The risk of dead and dying trees needs skillful management, but the benefits of trees can’t be overstated. And if I may get a little science-fictiony here, trees may someday prove to be important as a potential store of knowledge. These are living creatures who have observed the changes in the environment around them for decades, even centuries in some cases. Our limited human perception may prevent us from interacting with trees, but technology might change that someday. We’ve all seen any number of cartoons where some child genius invents a device that allows their animals to talk; how incredible would it be to talk to trees, to probe their memories of what our cities and our state looked like long before any of us were born?
That’s admittedly a fantastic thought, but the present day reality of how trees shape our lives is anything but. State and local leaders have taken important steps toward applying smart policy to trees. Let’s encourage them to take more action so that we’ll have even more beautiful trees to appreciate next fall.