Investing in Trees

Daniel Van Starrenberg There are many things that we know about trees. They generously provide the fresh air that we breathe day in and day out. They give us shade on hot summer days and act as a windbreak on stormy winter nights. They provide a habitat for wildlife and, simply stated, they make our communities look better. But for community leaders who are trying to manage a bottom line, these benefits – while important to quality of life – are sometimes difficult to justify on a balance sheet.

The question they face is this: are community trees a fiscally sound investment? While it is known that trees provide some monetary benefit it is difficult to put an actual number on it. This is largely due to the fact that, as recently as the year 2000, the technology didn’t exist to accurately assess urban tree canopies. Quite literally, the satellites used at the time could see the forest but not the trees.

Urban Tree Canopies in US

That was then. Today, using a combination of topdown and bottom-up assessments we can see where trees live, where there is room for new trees and what their approximate value is. Take New York City, whose tree canopy is estimated to cover 27% of the city. Studies show that these trees store about 1.35 million tons of carbon valued at $24.9 million. They also remove about 2,202 tons of air pollution saving approximately $10.6 million per year. Numbers like this establish that trees have value, but what about return on investment? A study conducted in Minneapolis answered this question when they determined that for every $1 spent on tree care, $1.59 worth of benefits was received. Statistics like this offer proof that yes…trees do pay us back.

So how are people spreading the word? This past Arbor Day, the Morton Arboretum in Chicago took the phrase “putting value on trees” quite literally. Using a formula that measured the species and size of trees against market prices for carbon offsets they established a dollar figure for a group of trees and gave them each a “price tag.” Each tag proudly displayed the value of that trees’ environmental benefit over the next 15 years.

Efforts like this have helped to build significant momentum in the movement to invest in trees. Today, more than half of the Mayors in the United States have conducted, or plan to conduct, assessments of their own urban forests. This means cleaner air for us, economic benefits for our communities and quality of life enhancement.

Wishing you a spectacular fall, followed by a cozy winter.


Daniel Van Starrenberg



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