Your Views: Achieve environmental goals by planting, not cutting, trees

Your Views: Achieve environmental goals by planting, not cutting, trees
(Courtesy photo)

To the editor:

We propose that city leaders consider achieving Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction credits through a major tree planting program rather than through the reconstruction of Taylor Run that is currently planned.

The program would not only help meet Alexandria’s Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction obligations, but would also advance several of the city’s other environmental goals, including its aspiration to be an “Eco-City” that in the words of the Eco-City Charter, “embraces natural beauty,” “improves water quality,” “clears the air” and “supports healthy living.”

Tree planting can provide Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction credits. A 2018 report by the Forestry Workgroup of the Chesapeake Bay Program states that “forests are a less-intensive land use and well known to be the best for protecting water quality.” The report states:

“By absorbing and processing water from rainfall and floodplains, forests reduce erosion, excess nutrients and sediments, other pollutants, and flooding risks. Along with forest retention, best management practices (BMPs) that establish new forests are a relatively easy and effective way to restore the Bay. In addition to water quality, we know that forest BMPs provide more co-benefits (fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, air quality, human health, etc.) than most other BMPs.”

The report sets out the water quality benefits of forest retention and tree planting, including the value of urban tree planting and urban forest planting. It also provides an assessment tool that allows for the evaluation of the various tree planting scenarios. There are descriptions of the credits given for urban tree planting, urban forest planting and urban forest buffer planting. The report notes that forest development has much greater pollution reduction potential than standard tree planting.

The projected cost of the Taylor Run reconstruction is $4.5 million, $2.25 million to be provided by the city and $2.25 million to be provided by the state of Virginia through its Department of Environmental Quality. The city can obtain and plant high quality 10-to-12-foot-tall native trees for approximately $200 each.

In other words, the city could plant 5,000 substantial trees for $1 million. If the DEQ matched the city, the number would be 10,000. Or, the city could use $2 million for tree planting and if the DEQ matched again, could plant 20,000 trees.

The city can easily absorb this number of trees. Among the places that significant numbers of trees can be planted is along Four Mile Run all the way from Mount Vernon Ave. to the Route 1 bridge. This is a phosphorus and nitrogen-rich zone that could be planted with forest density.

Areas along Hooff’s Run, another phosphorus and nitrogen-rich site, along Eisenhower Avenue, along Holmes Run and in Ben Brenman Park can all take hundreds of trees. Fort Ward should be able to accommodate hundreds more, especially as the planned playground relocation will open a large area where newly planted trees can fill out an existing forest. Several Old Town parks and paths could collectively take hundreds of trees without interfering with open space needs and views.

And the planting project would allow for retention of the portion of forest that is currently slated for removal as part of the Taylor Run reconstruction project. It would also enable the city to receive pollution reduction credits for trees that would otherwise be cut.

The tree planting would provide the multiple ecological, human health and climate benefits identified by the Chesapeake Bay Forestry Workgroup. It would help meet the tree canopy goals set out in the city’s Environmental Action Plan 2040, which sets the goal of achieving a 40% tree cover by 2035. And, as mentioned above, it would help fulfill the vision of Alexandria as an “Eco-City.”

A tree planting program should be cost competitive with the cost of the Taylor Run project, particularly if the estimated pollution reduction benefits of that project are too high, as we believe they are.

We ask that City Council direct the city arborist to develop a tree planting plan that could serve as an alternative to the Taylor Run stream reconstruction plan. The arborist should work with the DEQ and other appropriate expert bodies as appropriate to ensure the most effective plan feasible.

As far as we can tell, no other urban locality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has undertaken a meaningful tree planting to achieve its Bay pollution reduction goals. But the realities of climate change and the need to ensure an ecologically sound and attractive quality of life in an ever-densifying city require that this option be given a hard look.

Alexandria has an opportunity to be a leader on this score and to provide a model for other localities to follow.

-Russell Bailey, Carter Flemming, Andrew Macdonald, Steve Milone, Alexandria