For more tree cover data from nextLI visit newsday.com/longislandtreecover

For more tree cover data from nextLI visit newsday.com/longislandtreecover Credit: Karthika Namboothiri

For many New Yorkers, Nelson Rockefeller’s legacy as governor was made of stone and concrete — with public university buildings, major bridges and other towering edifices built around the state in the mid-20th century.

In this 21st-century era of climate change, Gov. Kathy Hochul appears intent on leaving a legacy of a different kind — 25 million trees to be planted throughout the state by 2033.

This is a good idea.

Hochul’s proposed 2024-25 budget, subject to approval by the State Legislature, would pay for about a third of the $47 million targeted for this goal of 25 million more trees. The rest would be paid from the $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act approved by voters in 2022. Supporters say the added trees would help improve the environment, as part of New York’s overall climate goals, and keep energy costs lower as summertime temperatures rise.

The initiative mirrors other tree-planting efforts around the country. It is a unique opportunity for the state to work with Long Island towns and villages in identifying those areas that are barren of trees and the protective shade they can provide, as well as adding more trees to streetscapes and recreational areas.

GREENING DOWNTOWNS

Though it isn’t clear yet how many new trees Long Island would get, the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it plans an aggressive campaign throughout New York that will emphasize downtown and urban areas where trees are scarce. It is also expected to be a boost to New York’s nursery industry, with improvements to greenhouses, seed production facilities, and overall research on tree health.

On Long Island, this initiative would lessen a current disparity in trees. A detailed analysis by the editorial board’s data journalist of satellite data from the U.S. Geological Survey of every census tract in Long Island shows that tree cover is disproportionately spread across the region. Tree cover refers to all kinds of trees — those in state and national parks, trees in private backyards, as well as those along sidewalks and parking lots.

From this bird’s-eye satellite view, differences in tree coverage can be stark. With almost as many inhabitants as Suffolk but less than a quarter in size, only 27% of Nassau County has tree cover compared to Suffolk’s average of 42%.

In particular, Long Island’s most populous town, Hempstead, has as little as 14% tree cover, according to the analysis. Overall, if the area of tree cover was measured in Olympic-size swimming pools, about six people in Nassau County would share one pool. Meanwhile, every individual in Suffolk County could have their own.

These differences can have an impact on human health as well as the environment, experts say. Lower rates of tree cover in urban-like places can create “islands” of heat which cause concentrated areas of high temperature. The “urban heat island effect,” according to advocates, often disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, low-income communities, and people of color.

NATIONWIDE EFFORT

Last year, President Joe Biden announced a $1 billion grant to increase tree cover in urban spaces through the U.S. Forest Service and local communities. Numerous census tracts in both Nassau and Suffolk have been identified by the program as disadvantaged, as per the Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool. Long Island municipalities should take advantage of this program, intended to tackle issues of “extreme heat, storm-induced flooding, and other climate impacts” through increasing urban forest cover. It is estimated that more than 100,000 acres in Suffolk can be used to plant more trees, according to The Nature Conservancy’s Reforestation Hub.

Apart from the immediate benefits of a lush green canopy providing shade on a sweltering summer day, increasing urban tree cover equally across neighborhoods promises big gains for the future. Climate change experts have long predicted that temperatures will keep rising and local governments, including those in the state, are accounting for the effects. In New York, winters have warmed three times faster than summers, according to data from the state DEC, bringing in less rain and snow. The number of heat waves per year is also expected to increase.

On Long Island, experts say there are plenty of barren spaces in downtown sections and in areas throughout the Island that could use more trees. “They keep your house cooler [on hot sunny days] and they provide stability from erosion in rainy areas,” explained Evan Dackow, president of the Long Island Arboricultural Association, with some 250 members primarily in Suffolk and Nassau.

More trees, like other natural resources, should be a sign of Long Island’s remarkable thriving abundance for all, and not an unfair representation of rich and poor areas as it is sometimes now.

Long Island government officials and advocacy groups should make sure we get our fair share of high-quality trees that can best adapt to our warming horticultural zones. More than buildings of stone and concrete, this initiative is a natural living way to leave a truly meaningful legacy for the future.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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