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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

No Safe Arbor in the City

Trees are disappearing from urban areas. Most people don't realize the significance of the loss, but one man is fighting for a place in the shade.

March 08, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Eric Oldar doesn't have to go far to find the alarming evidence. He lifts his sizable 6-foot-5 frame out of his office chair, walks 20 paces to the door, steps outside and glumly eyes the culprit: a spindly crape myrtle tree. A whole row of them bordering the Riverside parking lot.

Actually, crape myrtles aren't trees. They are shrubs that grow to look something like trees in miniature.

And that, in short, is the problem. That is what puts a knot in Oldar's jaw and leaves him muttering: "People want quality lives and communities -- they say so. But subtly, all around them, they're losing one of the essentials."

Our grand city trees are disappearing.

The towering trees that provide us cooling shade and save on air conditioning; the trees that give roost to birds; the broad-shouldered trees that soak up the heavy rains before they gather into floodwaters; the trees that cleanse our air and muffle the roar of metropolitan life; the great trees that inspire the poet in our battered urban hearts; the trees that soften the sharp corners of crowded living and connect us to the majesty of nature -- the trees are going away.

In their place: pygmy stands of crape myrtles, or clumps of even smaller bushes. Or just beds of redwood chips scattered atop plastic sheeting to make sure that even weeds don't grow.

"We're eliminating trees," says Oldar with a deep sigh. "We're letting them become trivialized; without really paying attention, we're letting them disappear."

Oldar is a forester and a pioneer in California's tiny urban forestry program, which is tucked away with firefighters in the state Department of Forestry. He has devoted most of his 27-year career to promoting urban forests, a concept that makes all the sense in the world if we think about it, which, let's agree, not many of us do. How many of us were even aware that Sunday was Arbor Day in California, the day for celebrating and planting trees?

In our mind's eye, if not in reality, cities of the United States are made glorious by their trees, and always have been. In the imagination of entrepreneurs, the city groves are a vast, untapped and profitable stock of spectacular hardwoods and softwoods for furniture, floors and home architectural details.

In truth, though, our cities are turning from green into gray -- at an alarming rate and with surprisingly costly consequences:

* According to American Forests, the nation's oldest citizen conservation organization and self-proclaimed "voice of the trees," the nation's urban areas as defined by the Census Bureau have lost 21% of their tree cover in the last decade. Viewed over longer time spans, the news is even worse. For instance, Washington, a city renowned for its blossoming cherry trees, has sacrificed 60% of its heavy tree canopy in the last generation.

* Even before the recent wildfires, San Diego and surrounding communities had lost 27% of their green canopy in less than 20 years. In an extensive study using satellite imagery, scientists at American Forests calculated that the trend, if unchecked, could cost taxpayers $164 million to manage future storm-water runoff. Added pollution that trees would otherwise absorb could make it more difficult for the region to attain clean-air standards.

* A joint study by state and federal forestry agencies determined that California cities have about 177 million trees and 242 million empty planting sites. The potential savings is huge. Three good trees planted around your house can reduce air-conditioning costs 20% or more.

* In a project sponsored by NASA, meteorologists determined that clearing trees had made temperatures in Atlanta 5 to 8 degrees higher than in outlying areas. This has created an urban "heat island" that generates increasingly violent thunderstorms over the city and its suburbs, contributing to flooding.

* And the topper: Incalculable millions are spent to process valuable tons of trees as common garbage. According to studies by the U.S. Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture, more potentially usable wood fiber is produced in urban areas each year than is harvested from U.S. national forests -- much of it sent into an already overburdened waste stream.

The numbers grow mind-numbing. Potential energy savings run into the billions of dollars if we would only shade ourselves under more trees -- $3.6 billion annually in California alone, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The savings from needless flood control is even greater. And global warming? Trees sequester epic amounts of carbon, which is the culprit in making our atmosphere a heat-trapping greenhouse. In other words, it's not just the size of the car we drive but the number of trees we plant that may shape tomorrow's weather.

To visit Oldar's cluttered, 10-by-12 office near the 91 Freeway is to tumble down a rabbit hole. The simple logic behind trees in our cities is inarguable; so too are the mindless forces that work against them.

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