I pass by the construction site at the corner of Pickett and Garrett roads in Durham two times every weekday. My heart breaks at every drive-by.
Not only has the forest there been cut and shredded to the very last twig, but the land itself is now being completely transformed by enormous lumbering earth-moving equipment. A beautiful hardwood forest stood on part of that land, which provided habitat for all sorts of wildlife, from box turtles to small mammals to birdlife. All are gone now.
I had hoped that the developers would at least preserve the enormous majestic ash tree in front of what was an old home site on the property, but it was actually the very first tree to be unceremoniously brought down.
I am not against development. As a long-time resident of Durham, I too am excited about the transformation that the city and county are presently undergoing. Our abandoned downtown of 20 years ago is now a vibrant hub of activity, and still growing. But growth brings the need for additional housing, more commercial development and additional infrastructure as newcomers arrive in our community.
I have heard so frequently from visitors what a wonderful green city of trees we live in, yet we are quickly losing that valuable asset to our detriment as land is indiscriminately cleared of forest. It does not have to be that way.
As our community grows, there is no need to make trees the enemy – we should include trees in newly developed landscapes, designing with and around the forest and the land instead of simply and completely erasing the forest and re-sculpting the land in order to maximize profits. It can be done and although more expensive in the short term, in the long term, property values are increased and the community gains an appealing neighborhood instead of yet another cookie-cutter subdivision of near identical houses that could be anywhere USA.
We need to rethink what we wish our community to look like and live like in the future. It is not enough to simply rely on the Duke University Forest parcels to represent our “green.”
The balance between not wanting to stifle development and promoting wise development through well thought-out regulation is a delicate one. But it is not impossible, and as a community with the weakest regulations in the Triangle area in terms of tree retention and management on developed sites, Durham can do better.
We are fortunate to have forward-looking representation in both our city and county government, including our mayor. I have complete faith that they will do the right thing in this realm, but I would also encourage Durham citizens to do what you can to protect (and plant) trees on existing residential and commercial properties as well.
Lastly, I would also say that our responsibility toward wise forest management extends beyond our local community. My job exposes me to forest loss in a developing country, and I have seen firsthand over decades the impact of massive forest removal through unsustainable techniques. Not only does it destroy the land, but people are further impoverished and yes, it even changes the local climate – less rain and seasonal changes that cultivators find increasingly complex to cope with.
Research is only beginning to illuminate the worldwide importance of trees, from water cycling through transpiration, to temperature moderation through shading, to uptake and holding of carbon. We need to protect as much of our forest as we can, and simply replanting is not enough. Durham can play its part, but a Bradford Pear in each front yard does not a forest make.
Charlie Welch lives in Durham.