By Liza Field
A primeval forest is a great sponge which absorbs and distills the rain water . . . Unrestrained greed means the ruin of the great woods and the drying up of the sources of the rivers. — Theodore Roosevelt
Does money grows on trees? Only to those who can see it.
In our entire Eastern hardwood region, fall color season is about over. Every autumn, a steady xylem and phloem of tourist plates pour up and down old roads and scenic byways from New England to Georgia. The trees do the work; we locals get the profit.
We always have. From Vermont maple syrup to mid-Atlantic apples and black walnuts to Georgia peaches and Florida citrus groves, our suppers and market crops, shelter, water and wildlife have depended on trees.
So does our topsoil — though it’s hard for our culture, which believes its life comes from money, to value mere soil.
The National Arbor Day Foundation has thus translated into dollars the value of simple leaf-litter — $50 worth of plant food annually, per average mature hardwood tree.
Were it prized, this free, mineral-rich humus would not be scraped off the suburban landscape, but retained to feed its trees, other plants, beneficial microbes and the “black gold” topsoil our grandchildren will need.
Humus also protects water tables and reduces costly storm runoff. Added up across a vast landscape, live trees and their leaves are big money in the bank.
Teddy Roosevelt saw this, after Eastern mountains had been stripped of forest — along with topsoil and clean water — by 1900. Floods washed the denuded mountain soils into creeks, ruining water supplies below. Springs dried up, creeks ran low — the living roots no longer there to store precipitation.
Thus, water protection was Roosevelt’s main purpose in buying up degraded mountain lands and setting them aside as U.S. National Forests.
Over time, the growing need for wildlife habitat, wilderness recreation, carbon sequestration and climate buffering has made this forestland value appreciate astronomically.
But getting decision makers to appreciate the value of living things — more than the lifeless dollars funding their political campaigns — is another matter.
Back in September, the House passed a bill opening U.S. National Forests to ramped-up industrial logging and development.
Spawned of the old view that trees only have value when felled, the bill expresses an impoverishing, short-range vision — doubling private logging in national forests, mandating aggressive timber quotas and allowing these projects to evade any environmental review.
Timber groups who devised the bill see it as windfall. Environmentalists see it as disaster.
Under its Orwellian title, the “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” would “restore forest health” by removing the forest.
It would also remove federal funding from rural schools, leaving them dependent instead on a flinder of the logging profits made from denuding their own watersheds.
Is it good economics?
Aristotle (a devoted student of trees) distinguished two kinds of fiscal views—“oikonomia” and “chrematistics.” Chrematistics refers to the business of maximizing short-term profits for one interest’s temporary gain. Oikonomia denotes the long-term management of a household. Its goal was for wealth to appreciate, over time, for the good of all household members.
In the United States, that kind of economic “house leadership” would require voters who could also see the big picture, viewing assets like living trees and ecosystems as wealth.
We have examples of this vision, today, at state levels, where officials can see more clearly the economic cost of deforested lands.
New York City holds more than 100,000 upstate acres in the Catskill/Delaware watershed, in conservation easements or properties, to protect its water supply.
The city’s current plan to double that protected acreage will save $10 billion to $15 billion in water filtration costs, allowing forested, “great sponge” landscapes to do that filtering for them.
For similar reasons, last spring in Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed pioneering legislation to protect that state’s valuable 40-percent tree canopy.
Seen as a national model for the protection for both water and economy, the legislation offers landowners incentives for converting lawn to woodland, establishing canopied stream buffers and reducing impervious surfacing.
O’Malley’s earlier tree-planting programs have already put 1.1 million new trees in the ground. It’s a deep-rooted, future-conscious investment that earned him National Arbor Day Foundation’s first-ever Vision Award.
Statecraft requires vision, Aristotle said. It sees a vast reality not obvious on the immediate surface. That reality includes where things come from, where they go and what purpose they serve in the big picture.
Those are questions we should be asking today — of our politicians, but also with them.