What Is a Tree Worth? Trees Brighten City Streets and Delight Nature-Starved Urbanites. Now, Scientists Are Discovering That They Also Play a Crucial Role in the Green Infrastructure of America's Cities

By Jonnes, Jill | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

What Is a Tree Worth? Trees Brighten City Streets and Delight Nature-Starved Urbanites. Now, Scientists Are Discovering That They Also Play a Crucial Role in the Green Infrastructure of America's Cities


Jonnes, Jill, The Wilson Quarterly


ON APRIL 8, 1905, PRESIDENT THEODORE Roosevelt, attired in a dark suit and top hat, could be found in Fort Worth, Texas, where youngsters looked on from a nearby window as he shoveled soil over the roots of a sapling. It was Arbor Day, which schools across the nation had recently begun commemorating, and the ever vigorous president was demonstrating his hands-on love of trees. For Roosevelt, Arbor Day was no publicity stunt. In an address to America's schoolchildren a couple of years later, he celebrated "the importance of trees to us as a Nation, of what they yield in adornment, comfort, and useful products." He saw trees as vital to the country's well-being: "A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless."

For centuries, tree lovers mighty and humble have planted and nurtured trees--elms, oaks, ginkgoes, magnolias, apples, and spruces (to name but a handful of America's 600-some species). "I never before knew the full value of trees" wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1793. "Under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company. What would I not give that the trees planted nearest the house at Monticello were full grown." But trees were often taken for granted in a new nation that seemed to have a limitless supply.

Then along came Julius Sterling Morton, a nature lover who moved to Nebraska in the 1850s, briefly edited the state's first newspaper, and soon entered politics. He conceived of an annual day of tree planting, inaugurating a tradition that was rapidly adopted around the country and then the world. (Today, Arbor Day is observed nationwide on the last Friday in April, though individual states mark it on other days.) In 1874, when Nebraska proclaimed Arbor Day an official holiday, The Nebraska City News rhapsodized about trees: "The birds will sing to you from their branches, and their thick foliage will protect you from the dust [and] heat."

But tree lovers quickly learn that many practical-minded Americans--especially politicians--see little value in trees, except perhaps as board timber. Roosevelt was an exception. An ardent birder and conservationist, he reveled in his power to create or enlarge 150 national forests, mainly by presidential fiat. In 1905, he appointed his partner in boxing and bush-whacking, forester Gifford Pinchot, to run the newly created U.S. Forest Service and ensure the wise conservation and use of these public lands.

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Roosevelt's national forests were the grand gesture, but they were supplemented by the more modest efforts of a number of arborists who saw a need for trees in the nation's cities and towns. The Progressive Era witnessed a great burst of urban tree planting, with Chicago's municipal forester declaring in 1911 that "trees planted in front of every home in the city cost but a mere trifle, and the benefits derived there from are inestimable." In the years after World War II, city forestry departments planted new trees and maintained maturing ones, while the U.S. Forest Service became known for Smokey Bear and efforts to fight forest fires that raged out west during the dry season.

By the 1970s, most Americans lived in cities and suburbs, and the tree lovers among them watched sadly as graceful old elms, big oaks, and verdant small woodlands disappeared, victims of Dutch elm disease, development, and shrinking municipal budgets. This urban deforestation was one more blow to declining cities. City streets stripped of trees lost much of their character and beauty. "Elm trees were part of my life," one Chicago woman ruefully told a forester in the 1980s. She cherished the deep shade and cathedral-like canopy of these majestic giants. "As each one died in my neighborhood ... the place began to look old, worn, and crowded." Soon thereafter, she moved to another neighborhood that still had trees.

Chicago mayor Richard Daley Jr., a self-proclaimed tree-hugger born on Arbor Day, was equally heart sore. …

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