The District and Virginia rank low on the tree count. The region is losing thousands of trees every year. And — for the second year in a row — housing development in our suburbs is taking away trees to build more high-rises.
The declining tree cover of the District and Virginia’s booming subdivisions are worth understanding.
To be sure, D.C. has a lousy record with protecting and caring for its trees. When Mayor Muriel Bowser came into office in 2015, the city had only 5 percent of its tree canopy. That number has risen to about 21 percent, but preservation and habitat projects like the Arbor Day Foundation’s Plant a Tree Initiative — which distributed tree seedlings, mulch and tree seeds throughout the city last year — make me skeptical of its overall growth.
And yet, here are some eye-opening numbers. The acreage of impervious surfaces around the city has increased by more than 25 percent since 2011. And D.C.’s vegetation loss is now doubling every decade, too. Moreover, the area of cleared street trees increased by 3,000 acres between 2013 and 2015.
While Virginia’s subdivisions suffer a similar fate, their trends are especially troubling. Urban growth makes forests more dense, and fast development and an aging population increase the risk that our forests face from fire, wind and disease. Virginia scores very poorly in four of those categories. Our trees are less dense, more susceptible to fire and are losing ground faster.
But there are indicators that we’re moving in the right direction. Around a dozen cities in the country have committed to setting conservation targets. In September, the Coalition for a Healthy Climate will consider endorsing the Alexandria Citywide Urban Forest Conservation Policy. This would set a minimum amount of vegetation for each community to maintain.
This city-level approach isn’t the only way to plan for our local green future. According to the Tree Trust, the best way to get farmers, nonprofits and cities working together to secure our forests is for the Metropolitan Research Center to research local approaches and then collaborate.
The O’Neill Institute has already done this in Columbus, Ohio; Philadelphia; St. Louis; Houston; Houston and Austin. But the Government Excellence Network will host an Urban Forestry Summit and Strategic Service Provider Networking Event on Thursday at the Federal Capital Area Expo Center in Washington. The event is for urban forestry experts and service providers.
Retaining healthy canopy cover is a vital step for protecting our environment and building stronger communities. The city and county of Alexandria, Virginia, might seem an unlikely base for such efforts. The city did implement a tree plan in the 1990s. But when developers set out to expand the city, local officials opted for old-fashioned bulk, with only limited tree care efforts.
Now that the wind has changed, a set of common good principles are needed. Farmers who don’t treat trees as their neighbors’ home could be aiding flood risks as we reach the most challenging time of the storm season. Cities could learn from companies that have started partnering to protect their neighborhoods through collaboration. Virginia needs to coordinate its efforts to grow trees, protect and restore trees and set and follow targets. Only then will we be ready for what the city once called “the next great city.”
The event will take place from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday at the Federal Capital Area Expo Center in Washington. Learn more at Iftree.com.