MEG NIEDERHOFER: Protect our trees

Published: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 4:45 p.m.

President John F. Kennedy used to tell the story about the gardener who objected to planting a tree because it would take 100 years to reach maturity. "In that case," came the response, "there is no time to lose! Plant it this afternoon!"

Friday is Florida's Arbor Day, a good time to consider the ways trees affect our lives, and the ways we affect theirs.

In school we learn that humans exhale the carbon dioxide plants use during photosynthesis, eventually yielding food, fibers and lumber. We learn also that the end-product of photosynthesis is the oxygen essential for human life. All life is linked by this cycle.

Gainesville's urban forest provides financial benefits as well. UF's School of Forest Resources and Conservation recently calculated the collective savings in electricity costs for people in single-family residences at $1,207,500 annually.

Trees do much to balance the human impact on climate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found the uptake of air-polluting nitrogen oxides by one mature tree is roughly equivalent to the output of a typical car driven 3,600 miles. The same tree removes approximately 330 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through direct sequestration in the tree's wood and reduced power plant emissions due to cooling.

A healthy 30-inch diameter tree removes 70 times more air pollution per year than a 3-inch tree, so protecting Gainesville's large trees is very important!

Gainesville's Land Development Code recognizes trees larger than 20 inches in diameter as "Heritage Trees." Laurel and water oaks, loblolly pines and sweetgums don't qualify until 30 inches because they are numerous, grow quickly and develop structural problems when comparatively young. We most want to protect the strong species of oak, magnolia, elm, maple, longleaf and spruce pine, hickory, tupelo and persimmon that would naturally make up a mature forest in our area.

The result of our efforts is evident when you fly into the Gainesville airport. Our town appears almost totally sheltered by trees. From the air other Florida cities present a stark contrast because few trees were saved during development.

Citizens elsewhere realize the loss of trees has been a huge mistake. Initiatives for change have been undertaken in Polk and Escambia counties and in Orlando, Ocala, Lakeland and Leesburg. Losses sustained during recent hurricanes provided incentive.

Despite the fact that Gainesville has many more trees, a smaller number failed during the fall of 2004 when we were hit by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. The high canopy provided buffering by keeping winds at tree-top level rather than allowing them to sweep along the ground, swirling upward when blocked by buildings to catch on overhangs, damage roofs and drop carried objects. Our roads became passable and our cleanup was completed more quickly than in other cities.

Everyone should check the trees around their homes annually to confirm their structural stability. Information on how to make this assessment is available online and through the Florida Cooperative Extension Service.

On Arbor Day, it's good to think about the connections between trees and people. They sustain us and in cities they rely on us to sustain them.

This year Arbor Day falls when Alachua County schools are not in session, so children can join in the celebration. At 9 a.m., the "Modern Day Johnny Apple Seed" (Tim Womick from North Carolina) will present a special performance at Morningside Nature Center (3540 E University Ave.). He will speak again at 11:45 a.m. in Green Tree Park (2101 NW 39th Ave.) at the City Beautification Board's annual community celebration.

Of course, the best way of keeping this holiday and assuring the continuation of our urban forest is to celebrate in the most basic way of all - by planting a tree in a location where it can grow to full maturity.

Meg Niederhofer is Gainesville's city arborist.

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