Tree Benefits: Good Municipal Economics
In my line of work I come across tree lovers of all types and each has a unique reason for their arboreal passion. Sometimes its personal – they feel a positive aura around trees or they have family history rooted (pun intended) in an old oak on their property. And sometimes it is an awestruck appreciation of how trees open our eyes to the beauty of Mother Nature.
But you don’t have to be a tree lover to appreciate the value of trees. Many of us understand their importance from a practical view – shade keeps us cool, or a screen of Leyland cypress has saved our relationship with neighbors. My favorite practical reason? I like to breathe.
In recent decades science has provided us with even more practical reasons to appreciate trees. The USDA Forest Service’s Center for Urban Forest Research has compiled a good list of these ‘tree benefits’ and here is a sampling:
• One hundred trees remove 53 tons of carbon dioxide and 430 pounds of other pollutants per year, and they control storm water runoff by catching about 139,000 gallons of rainwater.
• Tree-filled neighborhoods lower levels of domestic violence and are safer and more sociable.
• In tree-lined commercial districts, shoppers stay longer, visit more often and spend more.
• Each large front yard tree adds 1 percent to the house sales price, and large specimen trees can add 10 percent to property value.
Such facts allow us to shift from a soft view of simply appreciating trees to attaching hard monetary values to trees and their functions. Armed with this new information many municipalities around the country are discovering that they can save a lot of GREEN by going green. What they have shown over and again is that while planting and maintaining public trees is not cheap, the economic benefits far outweigh this cost.
Generally speaking, for every dollar invested in tree infrastructure (this includes planting, maintenance, removal, sidewalk repair, arborist staff – everything) that municipality will receive 3 dollars’ worth of services that the tax payers would otherwise have to cover. A specific example cited by the Forest Service shows that one healthy 20 year old public tree costs about $36 per year in maintenance, but the benefits provided come to around $96. Extrapolate this to a realistic scenario and this means that one hundred public trees over 40 years provide $380,000 in benefits and only set the city back $148,000. That comes to a net benefit of $232,000.
It is clear why municipalities have shifted from seeing trees simply as ‘fringe benefits’ that only make it into the budget when there are surplus funds or are wrapped in as a small part of the public works department. To the contrary, cities and towns have learned that, in addition to creating a pleasant atmosphere, a tree canopy is an economic necessity that frees up taxpayer dollars for other essentials like education, police and road maintenance.