We seem to be a bit schizophrenic about trees these days.
Given the extended power outages of the last two summers, BGE — with the mandate, encouragement and cheers of many — has been on a tree-trimming tear. Wherever it can, it is trimming, troughing and topping off trees to eliminate branches that might fall on its wires.
When none of these lesser tactics is deemed sufficient by BGE officials, they cut. In my neighborhood alone, I counted no fewer than 50 trees taken down, from crown to ground. Several of them were more than 100 feet tall. That was about a week before the derecho. And we still went eight days without power as a result of the storm.
The lesson that BGE seemed to learn: trim and cut more trees.
Then we read in the July 18 Sun: "Nearly 1,000 new trees planted in Baltimore County." We are told that these trees, when they reach maturity, will provide more than $2 million of infrastructure benefits, including cooling neighborhoods and buildings, and slowing and filtering rainwater. These two services alone will save us millions of dollars of stormwater management costs, reduce our energy demands on BGE and hold down our household energy expenses.
So we cut and we plant, once again pitting energy against environment. Which is unfortunate, if for no other reason than that Baltimore County, like other jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, is required to reduce the sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus it discharges into its waterways over the next decade. Trees are a major, natural, energy-efficient filter of stormwater pollutants. And existing, healthy, big trees do this for free.
We are fighting against ourselves. There is a better way. The following suggestions are not new. Others have said them before. Some have said them recently in the wake of the storm. But they need to be repeated until they become policy:
•Put the wires underground. The problem is not the trees. The problem is the wires. The derecho showed us we cannot cut our way to energy security. Yes, it costs money to put the wires underground. But so does keeping them in the air. If we add up the costs of lost productivity of millions of people during the power outages, the spoiled food (an estimated $100 million from the derecho alone), relocation costs to local hotels and motels, the increased consumer expense of personal generators, the millions in lost environmental benefits the cut trees provide, the aesthetic degradation of the poles and wires that we have learned to live with, the increased stress on millions of people and the deaths that such outages cause, we will discover we cannot afford not to.
•The power companies must no longer be exempt from the Forest Conservation Act. We must count the trees BGE takes down and replace them. Currently, no one is keeping score. No one is doing an environmental assessment. No one is calculating the green infrastructure benefits we are losing.
If over time, as we work to put the wires underground, we still need to cut some trees to create better energy security, then let's count them and replace them. Two for one. It will take decades for saplings to replace the benefits of 100-foot trees. And mortality will claim a few. So we must plant at least two for one.
Such tree planting and burying of wires would also create good jobs — local, non-exportable jobs. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted 2 billion trees, many of which we — the inheritors of the economic wisdom and political will of our government back then, along with the hard work of our fellow citizens — enjoy to this day. We can do the same for ourselves and our children.
•We must decentralize our energy sources. Robust incentives for alternative, green, decentralized energy sources must be provided to businesses and homeowners. National security alone should make decentralization a high priority. Our intertwined, interdependent grid makes us all vulnerable. Working on smaller neighborhood energy scales can help bring neighbors together, prevent widespread outages, strengthen local economies and make us all more resilient. And renewable energy will make a healthier environment and healthier people.
Now is the time to make these changes. Labor is plentiful. The economy needs a boost. And we can leave our children an invaluable legacy.
Nina Beth Cardin writes from Baltimore, where she is a rabbi and director of the Baltimore Orchard Project (www.baltimoreorchard.org).