By Bonnie Winters Akey, Chair of Little Silver Environmental Commission & Green Team
At this time of the year in New Jersey, it’s easy to fall in love with trees. This year, in particular, the colors and shapes of the leaves have been stunning and lasted into late November/early December. I have always considered myself the proverbial “tree hugger” and my home is surrounded by mature and healthy specimens that I try to take care of as they take care of me. Every 12-15 months, I see to it that they are pruned and fed and sometimes, but very rarely, removed due to sickness or death. (That last sentence feels as though it should have ominous music playing in the background when it is read.) I have somewhat made it my life’s work to preserve trees and spread the word on why this is a good idea. I’m a retired teacher but my second calling is working on environmental issues and in this context, I find myself teaching people about the benefits of trees. Yet, not everyone feels the way I do which presents a challenge for me when getting my message out. I’ve ground my teeth listening to folks with influence say, “I don’t like trees near houses.” My instinct is to shriek, “They were there first!” although I don’t since it would destroy my messaging. So, if you like me, want to help people understand the importance of trees, here are some ideas worth contemplating.
The benefits of trees are many, but energy savings are one of the first things worth mentioning. Trees that are correctly spaced around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by up to 30% and can save 20-50% in energy used for heating (U.S. Forest Service). If trees are carefully positioned, they can reduce household energy consumption for heating and cooling by up to 25%. Computer models devised by the U.S Department of Energy indicate that as little as three well placed trees can save an average household between $100- $250 in energy costs annually (Energy.gov). The specific savings vary from study to study but nonetheless, remain significant.
Though it’s obvious to the most casual observer, it’s worth mentioning that trees provide habitats for a variety of wildlife. Squirrels, racoons, and chipmunks make their homes in the trees as do birds from eagles to chickadees. But besides living in the trees themselves, animals also make their homes below the trees in the woodlands and forest floor, as well as the urban/suburban garden or yard. Trees and forested areas provide a range for wildlife to travel and migrate. Canada Geese migrate and often nest at the base of trees near a water source (Seattle Audubon). A local example of bird migration that you’re probably familiar with, is that of the hummingbird. Each year they arrive in late April to May and take up residence in our local trees. They spend most of the summer with us and often stay until the autumn months when the weather starts to get a bit chilly.
Trees provide us with clean air by capturing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. They pull the CO2 out of the air, bind it up in sugar and release oxygen. Trees then use that sugar to build wood, branches and roots (Penn State Extension). A mature tree absorbs carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 pounds per year. In one year, an acre of forest can absorb twice the CO2 produced by the average car’s annual mileage (Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership). The Arbor Day Foundation found the same result. Another study found that a stand of trees, or a contiguous community, reduced particulates by 9-13% and the amount of dust that reached the ground was 27-42 % less than under a treeless area of the same size.
Because I live in an area that is prone to flooding, my favorite attribute of trees (other than their natural beauty) is their ability to help manage stormwater runoff. Trees are a green infrastructure that naturally and inexpensively decreases the amount of stormwater runoff and pollutants that reach our local waters. They do this by intercepting rain and holding a portion of it on their leaves and bark. Fallen leaves below trees (leave some leaf cover behind when raking or blowing your leaves in the fall) form a spongy layer that retains moisture, provide a habitat for organisms that break down matter, and allow rain to percolate into the soil rather than rushing off carrying pollutants. Underground, the roots are hard at work holding the soil in place and absorbing water that will eventually be released into the atmosphere through transpiration (Tree City Bulletin No.55).
In 2018 the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection published The Clean Water Book – Choices for Watershed Protection. Chapter 3 deals with “Managing the Flow of Stormwater.” This document has a bullet list of eight ways to significantly reduce stormwater runoff. The first listed suggestion is, “Plant trees or shrubs to promote filtration.” There are seven other suggestions that are all very doable and helpful to lessen runoff, but this writer thought it was notable that the first item on their agenda was to plant trees.
To all of you concerned about preserving the land that we live on, may I suggest you form an alliance with the trees that you have and make a conscious effort to plant more in places they might fit. One hundred years from now, no one will be thankful for your lawn, but they might be grateful that your cultivation and preservation of trees helped to save their homes, neighborhoods, and the planet.
Bonnie Winters Akey is a retired teacher and environmental advocate and currently is the Chair of the Little Silver Environmental Commission and the Little Silver Green Team. Bonnie received her B.A. and M.Ed. from the University of Toledo as well as an M.A. from Columbia University.