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OPINION: Keep the 'trees' in 'tree-lined suburbs'

Scott Carlin is an associate professor of geography at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University.

 

The powerful nor'easter earlier this month brought many towering old trees crashing to the ground. The trees were no match for the rain-drenched ground and howling winds. In the aftermath, downed power lines and blocked roads crisscrossed the Island. We stopped and stared at trees that had long stood sentinel over local streets and homes, as if we were seeing them for the first time.

In large part, we take the trees in our neighborhoods for granted. But Long Island's tree-lined streets are only a few decades old. Until suburbanization arrived, much of the Island was cleared of forests. The land was devoted to farming, and trees were harvested for wood products and fuel.

Oil-fueled suburbanization prompted a resurgence of woodlands. Across the nation, new ideas of preservation and conservation - led by the American reformers John Muir, Aldo Leopold and David Broder - replaced forest exploitation.

Today, this movement is global. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai empowers Kenyan women to reforest, benefiting both land and people. After decades of clearcutting and worsening floods, China now embraces reforestation. And in the coming months, diplomats will negotiate complex new policies to link tropical deforestation, climate change and development assistance.

While global forestry conversations continue to grow in intensity, here it reached a plateau in 1993, when New York protected the pine barrens. In recent years, new parks have opened, but as the green agenda has broadened, trees have become less visible.

Farmland acquisitions, energy and health have dominated the agenda in recent years. But while fewer pesticides, safer household cleaners, energy efficiency and solar panels are all necessary for our future, so are our trees.

One proposed project is defining a new "green-tech plus greenery" balance. The Long Island Power Authority, Brookhaven National Laboratory and BP Solar have partnered to create a 32-megawatt solar photovoltaic system that clears 150 acres of forested land at the lab, but preserves 51 acres and additional pine barrens acreage using a new $2-million fund.

Trees are beautiful, but that beauty isn't a luxury. Trees are an essential component of our landscape and our infrastructure. On Long Island, we haven't sharpened that message - partly because the surrounding estuaries and ocean overshadow our woodlands.

And now our woodlands face a new threat. As a consequence of the financial storm in Albany, Gov. David A. Paterson has proposed a 35 percent cut to the state's Environmental Protection Fund, including no new funding for open space acquisitions next year, and a 19 percent reduction in state parks. The governor's proposed budget offers tax breaks for "green-tech" initiatives, yet parks also generate green jobs, and park-related tourism and jobs are a substantial component of Long Island's economy. The Senate and Assembly are looking for ways to restore the parks funding in their own budget plans.

Trees also provide us with an incredibly rich flow of benefits, from clean air and water to enhanced property values. Vegetative shade can cut summer air conditioning bills by 50 percent. Trees add color and beauty to our communities; they give streetscapes a sense of place. They are essential for supporting local wildlife and public health. Walking amid these universal symbols of peace can bring tranquillity or add a bit of magic to our day.

It's time to think more strategically about Long Island's arboreal infrastructure: its fruit trees, shade for buildings, biodiversity and eco-tourism, landscapes that create a richer set of connections among trees, recreation activities and retail shops. Using geographic information systems - computer-generated maps - counties and towns can optimize regional tree cover to remove air pollutants, reduce storm-water runoff, and store and sequester carbon to help manage global warming. Let's let the recent loss of hundreds of trees remind us of the many ways we can use these assets to develop our public wealth.

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