The United States has lost 50 million trees a year to the urban environment over the past decade, according to a national study on how the city-wide conundrum is affecting the environment.
The first national survey on the phenomenon launched in 2011 by the U.S. Forest Service notes that the nation’s 54 largest urban centers are experiencing a tree population crash in response to the use of concrete, asphalt and dust.
The decline, perhaps most starkly observed in the nation’s urban areas, is costing Americans an average of $284 a year per household, the USFS figures indicate. That may not sound like much, but the sum could ultimately approach a trillion dollars depending on how many trees Americans lose in the next 25 years.
Despite warnings, the Forest Service researchers said their findings highlight a “systemic failure” of officials and communities to have the foresight to build in a safe environment for trees.
The forests more than 6 miles across in the metropolitan region were examined for the national study by the Center for Urban Forests at the University of Pennsylvania, The Associated Press reported.
“We are not necessarily waiting for Congress, the president or even state or local government to fix this problem,” said Cristina Cifuentes, director of the Center for Urban Forests. “We’re not waiting for someone else’s plan to solve the problem, we’re saving ourselves.”
While helping to clean the air and water, urban forests save billions of dollars in maintenance costs per year, provide habitat for wildlife and buffer the effects of urban development. Forests are also an important part of America’s old-growth heritage, a key to protecting national parks.
Recent studies and U.S. Department of Agriculture efforts have highlighted how trees help rural communities by enhancing the beauty and the wallets of towns and villages.
The National Forest Service’s “Saving Trees for the Environment” plan notes that communities that turn to wood-fiber products from urban forests earn up to $4.34 per cubic yard of lumber sold. The study reported an annual wood fiber tax revenue of nearly $21 million in the 10-state metropolitan region that includes Boston and New York.
The lost trees mean an entire revenue stream is being lost, said Billie Sutton, head of the city-wide scientific study.
“That’s money that could benefit communities to fund more police and more firefighters,” Sutton said. “It’s completely devastating.”
Once the country’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, the industry is also struggling to adapt to a collapsing global climate that could have deadly consequences in New York City.
The city’s two aging nuclear reactors, along with its unused Long Island and Hudson River tunnels, are so cracked they pose a “clear and present danger” to the public and the environment, a federal investigation concluded in 2016.