Those “Well Meaning” Tree People

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“A society grows great, when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” – Greek Proverb

A neighbor shared an email with me this week that was discussing the merits of removing a significant number of trees for a county project. There were three lines of particular interest

  • Infrastructure investments will improve storm water runoff and reduce flooding
  • Tree preservation is a priority of [NOVA/Arlington ] so they will work to make sure that there isn’t a loss of trees.
  • The opposition [AKA those who are trying to save the trees] is well meaning but not in the interest of our region.

I’ve heard these three lines a lot in the last few years and they are said by three primary groups: the schools advocates, the sports advocates, and the developers, which, let’s face it, includes the housing advocates. Thus, the County Board and the School Board take these comments and perpetuate these short sighted opinions without taking any responsibility for their roles in positioning the county for the future. And, thus, Arlington has been left with a wholesale slaughter of not just green space, but trees in general.

The Tree People (TTP) have been playing by the rules with overly civil and agreeable tactics including writing letters, hosting meetings with the elected officials and trying to use facts and data to build a case. They are the receivers of sympathetic looks and phrasing like “we agree with you, but our project is more important to the youth.” The irony is that the small group of TTP are largely childfree and making the case that saving the trees will benefit kids in both the short term (asthma, air quality, etc) as well as the long term (infrastructure and long term planning).

TTP are super nice people, they aren’t zealots, they aren’t anti growth, anti development, anti schools or anti sports. TTP are pro-planning for a better Arlington. The data reveals that mature trees are critical in storm water run off and that while infrastructure like tiling and terraces can mitigate the damage caused by overdevelopment, it is the mature trees that will soak up the most water and have the largest impact. When you cut down a healthy mature tree, Arlington needs to spend a lot of money to move that water down to the Potomac and the water that we are sending down is coated in all of the grime that is on our streets. A rain garden or three young trees will not take the place of a mature tree.

Tree preservation is not a priority of Arlington or NVPA. The county officials say it is, but their actions do not align with their words. If you plant seven new trees for every one old tree that you take down, but only one new tree survives beyond three months, trees are not a priority. When every project that comes into the Arlington development docket outlines clear cutting mature trees, tree preservation is not a priority. When every project that has been retooled to save some trees damages the remaining trees’ root system and they die, tree preservation is not a priority. Take a moment: can you find any project in Arlington and identify tree preservation and then demonstrate in the final product that there indeed was tree preservation?

TTP should not be condescendingly labeled, “well meaning,” they are thinking long term, strategically and for the betterment of everyone. Quite frankly, they are thinking bigger than themselves and their immediate families and their immediate wants. The schools advocates are filled with parents worried about their kids right now and not necessarily what their kids will need in ten, twenty or even thirty years. The sports advocates are filled with parents who want their kids to play their preferred sports right now and adults like me who want to be able to regularly play our leagues or hop on a trail without having to drive far. It is about what we want, right now, not about the long term viability of playing in the future. And the developers and housing advocates are in it for the money right now. How to create revenue or ease housing costs right at this moment, not about the long term thinking necessary for people to live a healthy life or the quality of the surroundings. The sports advocates, schools advocates, affordable housing advocates, developers, and the County Board are thinking too short term, just about the right now.

Saving a tree isn’t well meaning. Saving a tree is recognizing that growing a mature tree takes a long time and is beneficial to everyone, especially the youth and the active. It is acknowledging that a mature tree is good for the air, for the water, and for the animals. Saving a tree is being strategic, data driven, and justified.

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