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A trillion trees could help address climate change

Occasional Observer
A trillion small trees planted now around the country would not be effective in fighting climate change for decades but it would be a step in the right direction.

In his 2020 State of the Union address, former President Trump spoke enthusiastically about the idea of combating climate change by planting billions of trees. It seemed an interesting idea; there are so many places that could be improved with the addition of lots of trees. Concurrently, U.S. House Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark) introduced a bill entitled The Trillion Trees Act with nine Republican co-sponsors. However, although a graduate of the Yale Forestry School, Westerman himself has a zero out of 100 voting record with The League of Conservation Voters. Currently, his Bill is in committee in the House with two Democratic and 62 Republican co-sponsors.

Critics say that The Trillion Trees Act is being used by the Republicans as a public relations ploy to make it appear that they are actually addressing climate change which is largely caused by excessive emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, something which most Republicans are committed to continuing. But, as one critic of the Act observed, “planting trees without cutting emissions is like trying to clean up a major oil spill without first stopping the leak.”

Former President Trump could have done much more for the environment by persuading his fellow climate-change-denying heads of state in Brazil, Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines to stop the massive destruction of forests taking place in their countries. In Brazil, for example, the government looks the other way as hundreds of acres of the Amazon full of giant trees are illegally being cut down every day and converted to farmland.

Environmental groups have estimated that the world is losing more than 15 billion trees a year because of human activities, way more than what might be added through new plantings of saplings.  Carefully conceived and designed new tree plantings in American towns and cities could make many of them much more beautiful and salubrious as well as reduce summer temperatures and thus global warming. 

The “grasslands” in the middle of the country where enormous acreages of corn and soybeans are grown for animal feed could be more effectively managed for the long term were these giant fields divided up and surrounded by hedgerows of trees and shrubs as is common in Europe. Significantly decreasing the “factory farming” of animals for meat and replacing much of this with a more diverse array of fruit and vegetable crops here could also help significantly reduce climate change.

Much of the Pacific Northwest, devastated over the past 70 years by logging, could be rejuvenated by widespread replanting. Another area for massive reforestation would be Appalachia (Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and eastern Kentucky) where a major portion of the landscape has been effectively destroyed by “mountaintop removal” strip mining of coal. In the few instances where minimal land reclamation has taken place, the land still looks terrible. While it can never be returned to its former state, much could be done to make this degraded landscape more beautiful, economically productive, and environmentally sustainable.

How? Careful regrading and repair of waterways and other natural features would be followed by provision of ample, suitable soil cover. An enormous, well designed composting operation that mixed treated sewage sludge and manures with a wide variety of vegetable wastes could blanket these derelict lands with needed soil within a decade. The main plantings would be a varied mixture of native deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs and native grasses where re-forestation was impossible. The countless volunteer plants would be evaluated, being nurtured or destroyed as appropriate. 

Many years ago, I, as a young architect, undertook a pilot project using similar techniques to successfully convert several acres of derelict vacant lots in Manhattan into interim, low-budget parks and gardens.

While special woodlots for lumber could be grown and later harvested, thereby providing modest future income for the project, the reason for the reforestation should be VERY clearly understood to be conservation, not commercial tree farming and logging as promoted by the Westerman Bill.

The successful WPA and CCC programs of the 1930s might be models for the reforesting of Appalachia. The region is poorer and the unemployment rate higher than that of the rest of the country; this project could be a major economic boon and unlike most commercial projects, employment would not peter out after a few years since maintenance and expansion work would continue for a long time. 

Perhaps even Kentucky’s senior Senator, Mitch McConnell, could be persuaded to support it.

A trillion small trees planted now around the country would not be effective in fighting climate change for decades but it would be a step in the right direction. The idea should be developed into a well-thought-out, well-administered, well-funded program, not just a public relations gimmick as presently conceived to distract the public from the main challenge of dealing with climate change.


Architect and landscape designer  Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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