Before I bought my land, I lived in an apartment in Seattle that spilled down the side of Beacon Hill in a grove of huge bigleaf maples. It was the top floor of a triplex with big picture windows. Since I was at canopy level, walking into my place was like walking into a Sierra Club calendar. It was lovely.
Then the landlady had the trees cut down. She said they “might someday cause a problem” by falling down on the utility wires below. Suddenly the great maw of highway I-90 was roaring right at my living room, just before veering off to meet up with I-5. The very light coming in the windows changed. The noise was no longer mitigated by the dense tree cover. It was hideous.
(I won’t recount here exactly what I said to my landlady — something about why not, then, a pre-emptive hysterectomy since you know you might have problems there someday? Suffice to say, I did not get my deposit back when I left.)
Beautiful Forest Or Valuable Timber?
At any rate, that was when I decided it was time to buy my land, where nobody could cut down my trees. When I finally found the chunk of forest I wanted, the seller talked about what a beautiful forested property it was and what a lot of money the timber was worth. I said, you either get one or the other. You can’t have a beautiful forest and a pile of valuable timber. It’s one or the other.
Especially now, when it is clear that the climate emergency is accelerating, I see shortsightedness and greed. Olympic Resources, also known as Pope Resources, has been clearcutting huge swaths of Kitsap and Jefferson counties here in Washington State (“The Evergeen State”). It is staggering.
Worth More Dead Than Alive
If you search on your computer “the value of a tree”, you will get all sorts of helpful links on how to calculate board feet of lumber from a given stand or acreage of forest. Occasionally you may come across advice on how to calculate the increased value that having a tree on your property will add to your home sale price. But mostly the entries are all about how much a dead tree is worth.
Remember this scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
The value of George Bailey was much more than his life insurance policy, as his guardian angel Clarence was later able to demonstrate to him. He was integral to the lives of so many people and events in the fictional community of Bedford Falls. His true worth was in these connections and interactions over time.
So, too, the value of a living tree or a living stand of forest is much more than just the potential board feet of its corpses. The true value is its functional value within the ecosystem, for instance:
- In the oxygen it produces when leaves take in carbon dioxide as they breathe.
- In the cooling of air and soil temperature by evaporative cooling from leaf surfaces and by the shade trees cast.
- In the particulate pollution it filters from the air.
- In the topsoil that it keeps to the earth by being a wind break and erosion preventer.
In the replenishment of the topsoil by its fallen leaves, needles and fruits.
- In the microbial processes it is part of and the pathways for funghi and other plants it shelters.
- In the rainwater and runoff it disperses into the soil.
- In the carbon it sequesters.
- In the regeneration of yet more trees by the natural dispersal of seeds and by underground runners that pop up.
In the homes for wildlife and insects that it provides, and by the pollination of food crops those creatures enable.
- In the food it provides to wildlife and humans in the form of fruits, leaves, nuts and seeds.
And on and on, and multiplied over the decades and centuries. These are just what come immediately to my mind, and I am not a botanist, tree specialist or environmental scientist. For more of the benefits of trees, click here.
But What’s That in Real Money?
I am also not a mathematician or economist, so I cannot quantify what the functions of a living tree and forest are worth. If I had a mathematician’s brain maybe I could figure out how to quantify the dollar value of a living tree, not in board feet of lumber, but in degrees of cooling, pounds of carbon, cubic meters of clean air, acres of crops pollinated by insects and birds that have a home in those living trees.
- How many pounds/kilos of carbon are removed from the atmosphere each year for the life of a tree? How much would it cost to sequester the same amount in some other, man-made way?
- How many degrees of cooling does a tree or forest enable? How much would it cost to create that same cooling via air-conditioning?
- How many pounds or kilos of particulate pollution does a tree or forest clean from the air? How much would it cost to create an air filtration system to match it?
- How much would it cost to replace the pollination services of insects and birds which live in the forest?
- How much would it cost to build a stormwater retention system capable of matching the water retained by a healthy tree or forest?
- How much compost is created by the fallen leaves and fruit, and how much would it cost to create that in another way?
These numbers are not unknowable. Professor T.M Das came up with the figures shown on this sign back in 1979 in India. Certainly an updated and more accurate assessment should be done today, now that we have computers, etc.
Indeed there is a website called itree which is a “state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed software suite from the USDA Forest Service that provides urban and rural forestry analysis and benefits assessment tools”. I haven’t figured out how to use it yet, but I am glad that it exists. I hope to learn how to use it soon.
Because we need to be able to say, “This tree, this forest, is worth this much more alive than dead, so don’t cut it down.” We need society to find a way to finance the keeping of our living forests, for all of the reasons listed above (plus any others you can think of). For the good of our communities and the good of the planet, we need to put a brake on the timber companies’ clearcutting.
A Baby Tree Is a Carbon Future, But…
We can — and must — replant forests, but it would be better not to cut down the ones we still have. A baby tree doesn’t sequester as much carbon as a grown tree. However, a baby tree is a future. A carbon future, so to speak, that we need to invest in, as individuals, as communities and as a species.
We are at a point where business as usual can’t go on. So I have been thinking about how we can finance the keeping of our living forests. In another post, I’ll talk about a couple of ideas I’ve come up with. Maybe they’re pie-in-the-sky, or maybe they might become pines-in-the-sky.