Earth Matters: Trees best allies in fighting climate change

Dr Hildur Palsdottir

By Hildur Palsdottir

The most recent United Nations report published on the climate this month stresses that we will experience irreversible human-caused changes to the climate for the next 100 to 1,000 years. The good news is if we start repairing our relationship with the living world now, we still have time to prevent a climate catastrophe.

An easy fix on a local level is partnering with our trees to mitigate the consequences of climate change.

The colonial mindset that claims we can “control” the beings that support life is the tap root of the climate crisis. Our local tree ordinances are written with the intent of “environmental planning and control” of trees. We need instead to respect the reciprocal relationship we have with trees and — instead of dominating — appreciate and support their life-giving ecological functions.

Climate change is an enormous problem that must be addressed locally and the potential for correcting our Town of North Hempstead tree law is a tremendous opportunity to right the wrongs. A public hearing on proposed amendments to the local tree law is scheduled Sept. 2, with the details found here

While I celebrate our Town Council for revisiting local tree laws this term, there are serious red flags that beg for attention. First, we can’t fix the problem with the same mindset that caused it. The original public tree law is from 1978, enacted long before the consequences of man-made climate change were revealed. The law does not adequately meet the urgency of the crisis we´re in.

I welcome the proposed plan for a proper tree replacement strategy where fines from tree removals will be used to fund the expansion of our urban tree canopy, with mention of planting “micro forests and tree sanctuaries.” In the ongoing conflict between trees and sidewalks, powerlines and sewage, a mechanism is proposed to replant in a more feasible location to make up for the ecological damage from tree removals. But the proposed amendments leave several significant questions unanswered. When, where and how do we enforce this plan? How do we improve native tree canopy? Where are the plan and budget for removal of invasives? Will the lost ecological function of removed mature, native trees be adequately compensated for with the replanting protocols? For now the law falls short in this and other substantive areas.

An example of a critical weakness is the proposed revision of Chapter 20A-9 on replacement of trees in private front yards. It states that trees with a diameter of 6 inches to 30 inches be replaced with one seedling. The removal of mature trees with a diameter of greater than 30 inches (greater than 30 years old) demands by law the planting of only two tree seedlings in its place. We don’t really have time to wait a dozen years for these replacement trees to grow up to offset the ecological damage. It is common sense that a seedling does not clean the air of carbon as well as a mature tree. There is also not enough mention of the type of tree replaced and that matters in terms of environmental impact.

We must be more proactive and enforce right-tree-right-place protocols with a healthy understanding of the real value of trees. Our town regrettably has a well-documented track record of replacing mature, native trees with small, non-native “rubber” trees of inferior ecological function. Our tree laws need to be strengthened to meet changing times and ensure proper replacement protocols.

The amendments propose an active Tree Advisory Committee and that is good, although I’m concerned that it has no real power. We need to encourage our councilpersons to ensure that this tree board does not only make recommendations, but is empowered legally to enforce an effective and intelligent urban canopy increase with allocated funds to do so.

Our tree laws should be written for protection and cultivation of our greatest natural resources. We need to realize that trees aren’t a nuisance or something to “plan and control,” but our best allies in combating climate change, weathering the storms, intercepting rainfall and helping with flood drainage and stormwater management.

We don’t have to look far for best practices. Westhampton Beach, Ithaca, and other New York communities have good, working tree boards, supported by town-certified arborists and professionals dedicated to maintaining healthy, urban forests.

Our councilpersons are the ultimate stewards of our urban forest, it’s imperative that we as citizens insist on protecting our rights for clean air. Together we can strengthen local tree laws in order to preserve and grow the local canopy so that it in return can protect us in changing climate.

Consider this your personal invitation to the upcoming Town Hall hearing on the local tree law ( Email your comments to [email protected].

It is timely to clarify the reciprocal relationship we have with trees, not in terms of us saving the trees – but in terms of understanding how trees can save us.

Support your local trees, let’s grow the canopy in safe places, so that we can meet an uncertain future in ways that are certain to support us.

“To exist as a nation, to prosper as a state, and to live as a people, we must have trees.”~ Theodore Roosevelt

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