How to Protect Trees: Policy for a 21st Century

Kimberly Burr

The County of Sonoma has long carried on its books a permissive policy that paves the way for developers broadly speaking to cut down trees – in small and in large numbers.
 
With the support, however of the three female County Supervisors – Zane, Gorin, and Hopkins, Forest Unlimited and its supporters have just achieved an important step towards properly valuing and protecting trees. The Update of the Tree Ordinance is now on the County’s Two Year Work Plan.
 
THE PROBLEM
As reported earlier, locally between 2007-13 approximately 950 – acres of Sonoma County were converted from woodlands to non woodlands. And there is no end in sight as new tree removal proposals are submitted virtually every week.  Where cool breezes once emanated and where water was efficiently created, cleaned, and stored, there are now hot exposed soils, re-contoured hills that drive polluted water off the land into ditches and streams carrying dust, spray, fertilizers (sometimes called “nutrients”) into water bodies during the winter and feeding algae in the summer. As to whether there are more trees now that the climate has warmed up, the facts in Sonoma County are that the trees are still coming down at alarming rates.
  
Good rules on canopy cover are needed now to protect and enhance – as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends for trees and woodlands. (9.5 million km2 increase in forests by 2050 relative to 2010. (IPCC Summary for Policy Makers). Reforestation and afforestation are needed to take carbon out of atmosphere quickly.

True Measure of a Sustainable County
Sustaining natural systems through clear policy is the true measure of a sustainable county. We know from history that societies as a whole have sometimes failed to recognize and to implement changes when environmental destruction was occurring. Many societies over-extended, exhausted their resources, and starved to death. We know this challenge. It is not new. Today, science and reason empower good policy even in the face of entrenched interests. Hopefully those that benefit from tree removals will not stand in the way of rational measures needed to minimize our highly destructive development patterns especially relative to our trees and watersheds. Better yet, perhaps the industries will lead and drive positive change in the expedited manner that is necessary. Who will it be?

The informed public has the most vital position to play on the team and must not abandon the field. In order to prevent more damage to important canopy cover, we must demand timely action for effective positive protections.

As science tells us, the momentum now is toward rapid extinction. We have very little time to improve our practices and prevent even more tragic fires, droughts, biological declines, and disasters. We all must do as much as we can each day to turn the tide. Some folks are in a position to do more than others…namely politicians and industry leaders. We are confident that the vast majority of folks see the good sense in protecting mature trees especially in the 21st Century.
 
We know Sonoma County business leaders, agriculture, and people are capable of leading an advertising campaign, and we urge them to put at least that much time and talent towards educating the public and our representatives about the immediate challenges with which are faced like preserving the County’s tree canopy. It not only absorbs the green house gas carbon dioxide but protects us from direct solar heat.

How Do We Achieve Success?
We will only get one chance at this.  We need to re-evaluate the true costs of tree removal to the community.  What is an adequate mitigation for the destruction of a 200 year old oak or oak woodland? Do a few baby ornamental trees installed to take the place of the mature trees that once touched the sky, recharged the ground water, cooled the air, and absorbed vast amounts of green house gases do the best job in the short time we have left? Or do we protect the vast majority of the trees we have and plant even more? Do we continue to give free passes to large landowners to do whatever they think is best for them at the expense of the watersheds and climate we all rely upon? What timeline is relevant today? What trade-offs does science say make the most sense?  What values should be attributed to trees and woodlands?
 
We must ask the question of ourselves, can we fulfill our dreams of success, richness, security, and happiness without large scale destruction of woodlands, forests, and mature trees? We need practical minds that will contribute practical and effective measures. Economic arguments are powerful and innately trigger certain responses, however unless economies works with nature, as we now know, we will fall far short of the actions needed. We need to grapple with whether all development is good development and if some development is exempted from common sense rules what effect does that have on our goals to restore, protect, and enhance our tree canopy?
 
We recognize, like many civilizations before us could not, that our area is rich in more ways than one. The question remains if whether our big brains and our collective will to survive is up to the task of using reason, cooperation, and problem solving, to stop the tragic destruction of our County’s important forests and woodlands.  

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