Tree cover can be especially crucial—and is often especially lacking—in urban areas, like here in Baltimore.
Credit: Blue Water Baltimore

We all love a little shade for cooling and relaxing. We know the value of trees for birds and other wildlife. New emphasis on trees as a nature-based climate solution is bringing global attention to the merits and urgency in planting more trees than ever before—and assuring that every community benefits.

The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement set a quantitative outcome for increasing urban and community tree canopy and tasked Chesapeake Bay Program partners with creating a management strategy and two-year workplans to assist communities with achieving their goals. At the time, the tree canopy goal focused on vital habitat protection: “Restore, enhance and protect a network of land and water habitats to support fish and wildlife, and to afford other public benefits, including water quality, recreational uses and scenic value across the watershed.“ The specific outcome was to “Continually increase urban tree canopy capacity to provide air quality, water quality and habitat benefits…[and] expand urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025.”

Progress: Based on current best management practices, the goal for 2025 is to expand the canopy by 720,000 trees. This goal recognized that a holistic approach is needed to manage the urban tree canopy. Along with the planting, the goal recognized the need for planning, protection, and maintenance actions needed to sustain a healthy urban forest.

A lot of progress has been made in protecting and expanding urban tree canopy in the watershed. What’s new is that tree canopy has been recognized as an important goal to address equity in the environment and economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities. And this now comes with programs and funding.

Tree Equity is a concept being advanced by American Forests and other organizations. The program aims to create tree equity “by planting and caring for trees where they are most needed.” It describes trees as “critical infrastructure that every person in every neighborhood deserves — a fundamental right that we must secure. But a map of tree cover in America’s cities is too often a map of income and race. That’s because trees often are sparse in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Ensuring equitable tree cover addresses social inequities so that all people can thrive.“

Young trees are commonly protected from browsers like deer with the simple plastic tubes shown here en masse.
Credit: Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Baltimore Tree Trust’s urban forestry job training program teaches how forestry can be a fulfilling, lucrative career for people in Baltimore, like these two men.
Credit: Baltimore Tree Trust

Multiple Benefits: In addition to the habitat and water quality benefits described by the Bay Program, the tree equity initiative highlights public health, economic and climate change benefits of tree canopy. For example, American Forests observes that “planting and taking care of trees can create jobs all along the urban forestry pipeline, from growing seedlings in nurseries to digging holes, taking care of trees and using wood for furniture.” For every $1 million invested in urban forestry, 25 jobs are created or supported in various industries.

Additional benefits of urban tree canopy include:

  • Reducing urban heat island effect
  • Managing stormwater and/or improving water quality
  • Improving public health
  • Sequestering carbon
  • Rejuvenating business districts, thereby increasing sales and taxes
  • Enhancing educational environments and student performance
  • Saving energy
  • Mitigating climate change
  • Fostering more cohesive social environments

Equity Scoring Tool: Released in June, 2021, the Tree Equity Score tool can provide a number from 0-100 for 150,000 neighborhoods and 486 municipalities in urban America. It considers existing tree canopy along with social and demographic factors: population density, income, employment, surface temperature, race, age, and health. Although the tool does not cover the entire Chesapeake watershed, it does encompass many smaller communities along with the region’s major metro areas. The tool is interactive and allows users to focus on areas of interest with a click of the mouse. American Forests has developed the Tree Equity Score Analyzer (TESA) for cities and states that want to dive deep into decision-making around Tree Equity Scores.

The Bay Program and other organizations also are developing and improving the layers of data that can inform us about the current status of canopy and focus on priorities for the future.

More numbers: Discussions about tree canopy often focus on numbers:

  • the 2,400 acres or 720,000 tree target for the Bay program;
  • the newly-passed, funded Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021 (HB991), an initiative to plant 5 million trees in Maryland, including 10% of those trees to be placed in underserved communities;
  • 10 million trees in Pennsylvania;
  • the need to plant and protect 522 million trees within urbanized areas nationwide to achieve Tree Equity; and
  • a trillion trees planted and protected globally by 2030.

Several challenges face achieving the numbers: the need for planning to select the right tree species and size for the right place, the commitment to water and maintain newly planted trees especially for their first 3 years, protection against pests and damage from vehicles and development, the shortage of available land especially in urban areas covered with pavement, the need to respect the wishes and rights of communities; and the complicated considerations of managing forests. Meanwhile, the changing climate creates new stresses on the existing inventory of trees. Yet, we must press on undaunted.

It is critically important trees are not just planted but also monitored and maintained.
Credit: Maryland Department of Natural Resources
It should hardly even have to be said that—on top of all the other benefits—forests can be a tree-mendous source of natural beauty.
Credit: Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Where will we put all of these trees? The Chesapeake Conservancy has developed high-resolution land cover/land use datasets with the University of Vermont (UVM) Spatial Analysis Laboratory and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) under an agreement with EPA that supports monitoring, modeling, and assessing the impacts of land use change throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These datasets are vital in measuring how much tree canopy we have lost from 2013 – 2019, and are important for identifying where there are tree planting opportunities throughout the Bay. These datasets are coming out in February 2022.

An opportunity exists in working with private landowners, as practitioners anticipate that much of the available land for planting is private. Noting among many challenges a tendency for hesitancy to plant trees on the part of some property owners, the numerous partners involved in the Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition have started to identify needs and ideas for more effective outreach and marketing strategies, incentives, educating decision makers, coordinating with growers, developing workforce opportunities, and more. The pressure is on, and it is clear that all hands are needed to help get this done. What a tremendous opportunity to engage individuals and whole communities in stewardship efforts across the Bay Watershed!

When we plant a tree we take a step toward developing and sustaining a community: not just plants and animals, but human values including public health and economic opportunities. These values extend over the life cycle of the trees including the use and even re-use of wood at the end of the tree’s lifespan.

Simply planting trees is not enough, by itself, to prevent climate change, restore the Bay, and fix all of our social ailments. But it is one of a number of natural solutions that, used together, will significantly reduce net emissions to help stabilize temperatures, while contributing to water quality and habitat improvements, and equitably increasing livability especially in cities.

Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.