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Cuyahoga County is losing trees, and it's a problem for all of us

tree canopy loss
Posted at 4:48 PM, Jan 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-02 21:39:16-05

CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — Cuyahoga County is losing trees, according to the county’s 2019 Urban Tree Canopy Assessment.

The assessment, released in mid-December, shows that between 2011 and 2017, the county lost about six percent of its tree canopy coverage, from 37 percent down to 34.7 percent.

The tree canopy, defined as the layer of leaves, branches and tree stems that cover the ground when viewed from above, can have significant effects on health and on the environment.

“We know we’re going to see more high-heat days in the summer, we know we’re going to see more precipitation in the county going forward,” said Mike Foley, director of sustainability for Cuyahoga County. “Trees are this kind of low-tech answer, mitigating factor basically, to minimizing high-heat days, helping with stormwater runoff. Trees are just valuable in a whole bunch of different senses. Air pollution mitigation, mental health. People feel better when there’s more trees out and they’re in bloom.”

That’s especially important in a “really built-out urban county like Cuyahoga County,” Foley said.

Nationally, urban areas should have a tree canopy coverage of approximately 40 percent, according to Foley. The December assessment puts Cuyahoga County under 35 percent, with a number of cities below 20 percent coverage, including Cleveland.

“What we want to do is we want to get better,” Foley said.

Cuyahoga County has committed $1 million in county funds per year for the next two years, in addition to $1 million last year, to help increase the tree canopy coverage. The city of Cleveland has also committed money to this issue.

“We’re giving grants out to communities, to nonprofits, to figure out how to increase the total numbers of trees that are really important,” Foley said.

Foley acknowledged this was a long-term plan, spanning 50 to 75 years, since “it takes about ten years from the start of planting until you can actually see those trees” on the system used to identify tree canopy coverage in an area. That means the initial phases of this project involve a lot of planning and planting.

“We’ve got a lot of communities out there that haven’t thought about tree canopy coverage in a long time, cause they’ve had limited resources to do that,” Foley said. “The grants that we’ve given out this first year, think about the long term. How do you successfully create a tree canopy program in your own communities that will last for the long term, that will have the benefits over the next 50 to 75 years.”

In addition to Cleveland, other cities in Cuyahoga County fall below 20 percent, including Brook Park, North Randall and Warrensville Heights.

According to Chris Perry, Streets and Forestry Division manager and arborist for the city of Lakewood, Lakewood’s canopy cover decreased from just shy of 28 percent to 22.77 percent. Perry noted that Cleveland Metroparks lost some of its canopy from 2011 to 2017, “an indication that natural losses, and not development or urban sprawl, may play the largest role in the overall decline in tree canopy within our region.”

Perry also said that Lakewood’s public tree inventory is at an all-time high and that the city has been planting trees “at a prolific rate” for the last seven years, and those trees wouldn’t yet show up on the satellite imagery used to measure tree canopy cover.

Susan Infeld, manager of special initiatives for the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, said that there are several reasons for tree loss, including “clearcutting for new development, invasive species, pests that come in such as the emerald ash borer.”

“The health of the tree canopy, it has a direct link to the health of people in the community,” Infeld said. “Trees clean the air the people breathe. In Cuyahoga County, we know that we’ve got a high level of asthma and particulate pollutants in the air. Not only do trees beautify a neighborhood and the community, they also have health benefits.”

Infeld said between 2011 and 2017, about 6,600 acres of tree canopy were lost in Cuyahoga County.

According to Dave Lowery of the Cleveland Tree Coalition, who also works as the vice president of marketing for Holden Forests & Gardens, “the impact of a drastically low tree canopy coverage [is] really profound.”

The good news, Lowery said, is that many key players, including the county and city of Cleveland, are on board, trying to fix this problem. In addition to local governments and organizations, Lowery said individuals can also help address this issue.

“One important thing to do if you’re a homeowner is to take care of the trees that are in your yard,” Lowery said. “A mature, healthy tree provides such significant value to the environment that we really need to make an effort to make sure that they stay healthy.”

That might mean calling an arborist to have your trees pruned or making sure you mulch correctly, Lowery said.

“People should plant new trees when they can, if they have land that they can plant on,” Lowery said. “That’s important, and planting properly. If you’re a concerned citizen, you should make sure that the city that you live in has the right kind of land-use regulations so that when a new development project comes along, that they’re not clearcutting mature trees that just damage the environment so much.”

He said business owners and organizations that own land can do the same thing by taking care of trees that are already in the ground or being sure contractors doing work don’t take down healthy trees.

“Really everyone can be involved in helping to address this problem,” Lowery said.