How to rebuild forests that were once set ablaze

Trees protect buildings, soak up heat, cool the atmosphere and absorb carbon emissions. So keeping them is obviously a massive boon to our planet and well worth a long-term investment. But that investment means considering all the costs of losing them for a while. On average, Americans lose 30 million trees a year, and municipal governments are just starting to see the impact of that. This week, architects from New York’s Forest City Ratner development announced the formation of their own tree restoration initiative, to honor Adirondack Park trees that were felled by the city for a housing project during the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Commission on High-Rise Housing.

Building off of a 2017 report by the New York Association of Forest Landscape Architects, the team of architects and designers at the Woodland Conservancy were offered a plot of prime forest land on a former flight path between New York City and Albany, near a site known as Unser Run. They thought about the illegal removal of 26 acres of forest in the 1970s, according to Newsweek, and decided to be proactive. Instead of just planting replanted trees to patch over the lost ones, the designers were able to salvage more than 700 downed Adirondack pines. While this effort will bring the Forest City Ratner development up to global environmental standards, its motivations have a broader societal impact. For example, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, not all the trees removed from the Unser Run forest will be replanted. “Under NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) restrictions, city trees were replaced with exotic trees like silver maples, which require extensive thinning to establish themselves as trees in the city,” Nevin Liebowitz, an urban forest conservation expert at NARDA, told Newsweek. “This adds uncertainty for scientists and non-profits trying to use volunteer efforts to restore and maintain a forest.”

Takeback centers are emerging, where citizens can check to see how many trees have been removed from a plot of land, but they can also go directly to the person in charge and demand that they be put back. Prior to the Forest City Ratner initiative, volunteers had no legal recourse, as environmentalists learned in 2012, when in that case, Hackensack University Medical Center and Mount Sinai Medical Center planted 100 trees under an industrial pier where 30 million had been illegally cut down in 1970. The workers were pressured by the mayor of Rockaway, who thought that they would be a better deal than a reclaimed land management plan, like one developed with Hank Baskin, who is now the president of the NARDA. If an NIMBY finds the reclaimed land management plan wouldn’t be favorable, like in this instance, it’s likely they’ll punish the project financially.

No easy solution exists for a town’s environmental preservation; nonprofits are always working to find and address that, but at some point, rebuilding is going to cost more than restoration. Additionally, you can’t just rely on trees to do their jobs. According to Alice Christenbury, executive director of NARDA, forests also help pollute the air and sediments in the soil and can impact water sources. To tackle the problem head-on, both nonprofits plan to launch and pilot replanting projects with volunteer groups, and it’s important to remember that no effort is completely free — upkeep costs in the forest alone could run $6 billion. The District of Columbia Department of Public Works estimates that roughly 15 trees can restore the value of one ton of carbon removed from the air. Still, it’s not a zero-sum game: While there’s value in planting new trees, people should not feel compelled to do it. “There’s something to be said for loss mitigation,” said Christenbury. “There are real arguments in favor of new trees in places where we have lost trees. It’s good to plant trees, but there’s not a trade-off with being out there in the dirt.”

This story first appeared in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine. Click here to read more.

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