Speak for the trees

If Baltimore MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakewants to attract 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade, she could do a lot worse than to plant more trees. Trees make a city more beautiful, and Baltimore is blessed with an abundance of them. But as with so many things having to do with efforts to turn around this town's gritty image, more is always better.

Across the country, cities have been steadily losing the gracious, old-growth trees that once made them inviting places to live and work. Nationally, urban areas are losing some 4 million trees a year to residential and commercial development, and Baltimore has been no exception. As The Sun's Timothy B. Wheeler reported this week, Baltimore's tree canopy — the proportion of its land area shaded by trees — declined by 2 percent over the most recent period studied by the U.S. Forest Service, which ended in 2005.

Two percent may not seem like a lot, but it represents the loss of thousands of trees a year. Many, like people, simply grow old and die, while others are destroyed by storms, accidents or disease. But unless Baltimore finds a way to halt the decline, future generations won't be able to enjoy the beneficial effects the presence of trees has on the environment that previous generations took for granted.

Fortunately, there are signs Baltimore is making progress toward preserving and enlarging its urban forest. The city's arborist, Erik Dihle, reports that since 2005, the city has been aggressively planting thousands of new saplings while devoting greater attention to the care of mature trees. Last year, workers planted a total of more than 7,500 new trees, leading to a net gain of some 3,700 added to the canopy when the annual loss through attrition is taken into account.

And though there is no way of knowing for sure yet — the next aerial survey of the city's tree population won't be completed until next year — officials are hopeful that for the first time in decades, the city's leafy green canopy may actually be growing again.

But though these results are encouraging, officials still have a long way to go before they can claim to have achieved the 40 percent canopy that the conservation group American Forests recommends as optimal for an Eastern city like Baltimore — and which Mayor Rawlings-Blake has adopted as a goal by the year 2037. The last time Baltimore was surveyed, its canopy was less than 30 percent. To enlarge it to 40 percent over the next 25 years, workers will have to continually increase the number of trees planted annually.

That effort has already begun. This year, TreeBaltimore, an initiative sponsored by the mayor's office to create public-private partnerships aimed at growing the city's canopy, oversaw the planting of some 6,700 trees in residential and business areas, up from 6,000 in 2009. Beginning in July, the program hopes to increase that number to 8,800, and officials want to be planting as many as 15,000 new trees a year by 2014. The tree-loving Lorax — star of the belovedDr. Seuss book and the movie that opened nationally last week — would approve.

This effort is taking place in every part of the city, largely financed by private donations, grants and the sweat equity of local residents, community associations and cadres of devoted amateur arborists who volunteer time and energy for the sheer pleasure of making things grow. The city's annual contribution of about $300,000 for the initiative seems a relatively small price to pay to support the work that is blossoming under their hands, and it will repay itself many times over if it helps entice even a few hundred more families to put down roots of their own amid Baltimore's urban forest.

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