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Mapping the big trees: a bulldozed beauty prompts a program aimed at protecting water quality by preserving arboreal treasures.

It was the diesel cough or a bulldozer headed for a potential state champion that motivated a group of New Jersey conservationists to look to the sky for help ill saving forest giants threatened by development.

The Garden State's Big Tree Water Quality Project materialized when officials with the Mercer County Soil Conservation District beard of a huge old swamp chestnut oak facing developer-imposed demolition.

"We found out about the tree in the eleventh hour, actually the eleventh and a half hour, and we just couldn't come up with a way to save it," recalls conservation district director Bill Brash. "The tree had a tremendous amount of character, and it may have been a state champion for all we know."

The loss of the giant oak prompted the agency to seek a better way of identifying and protecting big trees threatened by development--a way that would cause a blip on the environmental radar screen long before the 'dozers began to billow black smoke.

"We needed a method that would let developers know these big trees were out there, where they were, and how they could avoid destroying them," Brash says. "After some research on our part we convinced the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection that big tree protection could be fundable as a way to protect water quality under the Clean Water Act."

Soil conservation officials had plenty of data on hand to help them prove that trees provide the best available land cover for reducing rainfall runoff and preserving groundwater recharge, both critical factors in maintaining the "base flow" of any stream. And, since base flow is synonymous with stream health and water quality, it was clear that clean water is directly linked to the canopy cover provided by trees.

With a grant in hand to develop a demonstration project, the Mercer County crew looked to the sky for information that planners could access at the speed of light. Utilizing GPS/GIS satellite data, the group assembled a database that included all the big trees in a sprawling watershed district including portions of Hunterdon, Mercer, and Monmouth counties.

"We worked in tandem with the New Jersey Forest Service to put together a list of all state champion tree nominees found throughout the watershed, along with any trees of historical value," Brash says. The program is similar to AMERICAN FORESTS' National Register of Big Trees, which compiles records on the largest known of 826 native and naturalized species in the continential U.S. and Alaska.

The end result has been a web-based Big Tree information center that instantly identifies the location of each big tree in the watershed district, provides a photograph of the giant and includes all the vital statistics developers might require. Each New Jersey big tree in the study area also can be cross-referenced with a municipal tax map and a lot and block number.

The database, funded by taxpayer dollars and available to the public under New Jersey "right to know" laws, is open to anyone with the curiosity and a PC to access it. At the same time builders can check for the presence of big trees as part of, or even before, the development planning process.

The project benefits developers in several ways. "Most important from our point of view is the fact that they'll be protecting big trees and in turn, protecting local water quality," Brash says. "At the same time, identifying and saving big trees can reduce costs; the developer won't have to pay someone to clear that particular parcel of land or a crew to haul away the debris. And in the long run, we believe big tree zones will add to the real estate values of surrounding homes."

Since between 90 and 95 percent of all tree roots are in the upper 18 inches of the soil and generally extend to twice the diameter of the crown spread, the new program asks developers to "set aside a 'safe zone' distance that equals twice the crown diameter," Brash says.

Along with their aesthetic appeal, big trees have the capacity to help protect watersheds and restore aquifers, Woody vegetation, especially the spreading canopy of old-growth, reduces the amount of storm runoff and softens the force of heavy rains, allowing rainfall to slow down, seep in, infiltrate the soil, and recharge stream flows.

By slowing the force of runoff, big trees also help prevent erosion. At the same time, their shade keeps water temperatures cooler, preventing hot-weather oxygen depletion and the fish kills that sometimes result.

New Jersey conservation officials add that municipalities that access information about big trees and then take the necessary steps to protect them will find that tree management not only enhances water quality, but also reduces the costs incurred by installing and maintaining stormwater infrastructure.

"Hopefully someday cities throughout New Jersey will turn to a similar database to help with all their zoning and planning decisions," Brash adds.

Part of the Big Tree Water Quality Project, grant required preparation of a model city ordinance that local governing officials could use to draft their own big tree protection plans. The group also worked with city fathers to identify and protect "heritage trees," those that reflect the values, heritage, traditions, and culture of any given community.

In hopes that their idea will catch on statewide, Mercer County officials have prepared a brochure and assembled a computerized slide show presentation. "As it stands, New Jersey doesn't have a statewide law that protects big trees," Brash points out. "We're hoping that with this program in place, we can make an impact at the local level and eventually watch it grow into a statewide initiative"--and possibly expand to other states.

"This is a tremendous gift to the tree lovers of New Jersey," points out Lisa Simms, with the New Jersey Tree Foundation. "Now New Jersey municipalities have an opportunity to protect significant and historic trees that may otherwise have been cut down for development purposes." The New Jersey Tree Foundation, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the state Forest Service all pitched in to insure that proper conservation components were in place.

Brash hopes citizens will begin to take more notice of the state's hidden treasures. While too late to save the swamp oak, he hopes their efforts will help protect the spreading boughs of New Jersey's living history, especially a towering white oak that stands just outside the watershed district mapped by the new program.

At least 240 years old and loaded with character, "it witnessed the Battle of Trenton oil December 26, 1777, one day after Washington crossed the Delaware," Brash notes. The tree is on the homesite of Quakers who aided the underground railroad.

"Hundreds of people on their way to Canada and freedom may have rested under this very tree," he says.

Development has crept to within a few hundred yards of this magnificent living memorial. "This is what we're trying to protect," Brash says. "And we need to have a method in place statewide.

"We're not anti-development," he adds. "But we do believe that New Jersey's rapidly growing population demands some sort of program for saving the beautiful old trees that grace our towns and suburban countryside."

You can access the big tree information at: community/bigtreeswmae//. New Jersey citizens can contact the Big Tree Water Quality Program via Mercer County Soil Conservation District, 508 Hughes Drive, Hamilton Square. NJ 08690: 609/586-9603,

RELATED ARTICLE: More trees, better cities.

How valuable is a tree? Depends on the reason. A tree may be the oldest or the largest of its species. It may be a champ nationally or statewide. Or, a tree may have historic importance because of the person who planted it or cared for it. All of these trees could be considered invaluable because of their size, age, or heritage.

What about the value of trees? Research shows us that people recover from illnesses faster if their hospital windows overlook trees. Crime is lower in areas where the trees are plentiful. Trees have a certain calming and peaceful effect on us, inspiring artists, writers, thinkers, and philosophers. Everyone has a favorite tree from their childhood. Placing a value on a tree for these virtues is difficult, at best.

With the technology now available, you can accurately calculate the effect a group of trees has on the environment. AMERICAN FORESTS CITYgreen software calculates the dollar value of groups of trees for environmental services related to air, water, and energy. For example, trees intercept rainwater, reducing the amount of stormwater runoff that needs to be managed by the community. Since this runoff carries contaminants left behind by automobiles, fertilizers, and the like, intercepting it helps improve water quality in creeks, rivers, and streams. Also, slowing stormwater runoff gives the water time to filter though the ground and re-charge groundwater supplies, providing us with safe drinking water.

CITYgreen does not calculate the value of an individual tree, looking instead at how each tree contributes to the overall ecological health of an ecosystem. But efforts to protect big trees--like the Big Tree Water Quality Project now underway in the Mercer County [New Jersey] Soil Conservation District--can benefit from analyses that calculate the value of an area with the increased ecological services these large multi-taskers provide. And officials can reinforce that point by showing the corresponding drop in benefits if those giants were replaced by saplings.

Can a lone tree have value for its services? Yes it can, but a tree really is not alone. Each individual tree is a component of a larger system, and collectively these trees have a very significant effect on our environment. This is a case where "the total is greater than the sum of its parts." Our biggest trees, however, are especially important because of their size and their social value. Efforts to preserve big trees--like the effort now underway in New Jersey--make a huge contribution to a community's ecosystem.--Mike Lehman

Gary Lantz writes from his home in Norman, Oklahoma.
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Title Annotation:protecting trees from land developers; Perspectives
Author:Lantz, Gary
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U2NJ
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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