Nurturing our urban forest

Mar. 10, 2014 @ 05:48 PM

Arbor Day was first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, promoted by, as it happens, a newspaper editor.

"Let us endeavor then by our words on ‘Arbor Day’ - and all other opportune occasions - to so embellish the world with plant life, trees, flowers and foliage, as to make our earth homes approximate to those which the prophets, poets and seers of all ages have portrayed as the Home in Heaven," urged J. Sterling Morton, editor of the Nebraska City News as quoted on the website forestry.com.

The celebration spread in the ensuing decades throughout the country. And nearly a century and a half later, Durham residents are honoring that tradition by, among other actions, lining up for free tree seedlings given out by Keep Durham Beautiful and partner organizations.

“Durham is very supportive of Arbor Day,” KDB Executive Director Tania Dautlick told The Herald-Sun’s Jamica Ashley Sunday as she and colleagues handed out the seedlings in downtown Durham. “Getting people engaged in planting trees helps them appreciate them and take care of them as they grow into maturity.”

Giving out free trees at a Food Truck Rodeo, as KDB was doing Sunday, is, needless to say, but one small step toward fully nurturing and expanding our urban tree canopy. Durham has a wealth of trees, many decades old, planted and maintained over the years by government, businesses and residents.  It is easy to take them for granted.

But the urban forest is about much more than aesthetics – and it is easy to lose our tree resources faster than we replace them.

Trees help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. They help control soil run-off. Their shade helps naturally cool, cutting energy costs. They can provide more comfortable – and attractive public spaces, and encouraging walking.

Yet, it is easy for these valuable resources to slip away. Reyn Bowman, the retired head of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a tireless crusader for protecting, expanding and appreciating our tree canopy.

While praising efforts like “Trees Across Durham” and KDB’s work, Bowman notes in his “Bull City Mutterings” blog that those groups “are challenged with reversing a nearly 40-year period of neglect which saw trees surrendered to impervious surface at a rate that outpaced population growth by 8-to-1.  Deforestation in Durham over that period has been the equivalent of more than entire 8 city lots in my neighborhood which would be nearly 800 trees per day.”

As Arbor Day approaches – it’s celebrated nationally on the last Friday in April, but many states celebrate differently. In North Carolina, Arbor Day this year is March 21 – it’s a good time not just to gather up our free seedlings, but to insist on policies and regulations that honor our urban forest year-round and year after year.

We will be a healthier, more energy efficient and more livable city for the effort.