Board Adopts Tree Canopy Goal for Fairfax

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Summer 2007)

During the last 30 years, Fairfax County has lost almost 48 percent of its trees to development. The increase in jobs and population associated with that development have made Fairfax County what it is today, a vital suburban community with lots of opportunity for its residents. The price, however, has been almost 74,000 acres of trees and the ecosystem benefits they provide. Today, 41 percent of our county’s land area is covered by trees (the equivalent of roughly 104,000 acres or 45 million trees) compared to 70 percent 30 years ago.

Most of us are aware that trees help filter pollutants from air and water. Trees also use carbon dioxide, binding the carbon into molecules of simple sugars during photosynthesis and reducing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. According to the non-profit American Forests, a mature tree absorbs and stores an average of 667 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere per year. By providing shade, trees also help us limit energy use in our homes and commercial spaces.

Rarely, however, do most of us see the dollar values associated with the ecosystem benefits trees provide: $261/acre annually in air pollution benefits; $5-57 annually for carbon uptake; $231/acre each year in energy conservation; and more than $25,000/acre in stormwater management benefits. When considered on the scale of Fairfax County, these numbers become even more impressive. Even reduced in extent, currently the county’s trees provide us with more than $54 million dollars worth of ecosystem services each year.

With some of these numbers in mind, on June 18, 2007 the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a new 45 percent tree canopy goal for Fairfax County by 2037. Without action, Fairfax County’s Urban Forest Management Division had forecast that 10,200 acres of forest would be lost by that same year, decreasing canopy cover to 37 percent. (The tree canopy is the area of land covered by a tree’s leaves, branches and trunk when viewed from above.) Thus, the new goal approved by the Board will effectively raise Fairfax County’s tree canopy cover by 8 percent and add 20,400 new acres of trees over the next 30 years. Those trees will provide over $10 million annually in environmental benefits to the county and its residents.

The adoption of a tree canopy goal is a key recommendation of the Tree Action Plan adopted this past winter by the Board. The goal also supports the county’s “Cool Counties” initiative to reduce green house gases and address global warming.

Although several localities in Northern Virginia, including the City of Leesburg and Arlington County, have also established tree canopy goals, Fairfax County’s 45 percent goal is among the most ambitious. Education and outreach along with innovative incentives for private landowners will be required if this bold goal is to be reached. Even maximizing tree planting efforts on public land the county will still be well short of its 20,400 acre goal. To achieve the 45 percent canopy goal adopted by the Board in June will require private property owners in Fairfax County to actively participate in tree planting and tree preservation.

Fairfax County Urban Forest Management is one of several agencies that will work toward implementing the new tree canopy goal. Director Mike Knapp recognizes the pressing need for local government to reach out and build partnerships within the community. “We need to work together with non-profit environmental groups, civic and homeowner associations, developers, utility companies and others to help protect Fairfax County’s existing trees and establish new planting areas. Achieving the new tree canopy goal will require cooperation and and effort on all our parts, but in the end we will all benefit from lessening energy consumption, reducing green house gas emissions, providing for cleaner air and water, improving our community and even increasing our property values.”

Jim McGlone, with the Virginia Department of Forestry agrees. “Trees can be the answer to many of the environmental issues facing not just Fairfax County, but many urban communities and the Chesapeake Bay.” An expanded riparian buffer goals directive signed by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Executive Council in 2003 calls for communities to adopt exactly the type of urban tree canopy goal Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors recently approved. “The new Fairfax County tree canopy goal is an opportunity for all of the county’s citizens to participate in tree planting, either by volunteering at public tree planting events, or personally on their own property. It’s an opportunity for each of us to become stewards of our local environment and community.”

For more information about the tree canopy goal, call the Urban Forest Management Division at 703-324-1770, TTY 711.

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