When asked what people love about Atlanta, many say they love the trees. In spite of our city’s urban sprawl there are still pockets of intact, old-growth Piedmont forests throughout the region – our tree canopy coverage in the City is nearly 48% (2008). But unfortunately, in the current climate of rapid, high-density development, trees are often an afterthought. Some developers regard tree-saving measures as inconvenient and replanting requirements as a nuisance; rarely do the quality, quantity, and type of trees replanted match those trees lost to site clearance and construction. Developers pay recompense fees into the City’s tree fund for tree removal. As newcomers flock to Atlanta, we cannot afford to let this laissez-faire tree culture prevail, or we will certainly lose our most valuable natural asset and sacrifice our civic identity. It is not too late to prevent that from happening, but it will require us to pay attention, demand more creativity of the development community, and strive for excellence in our tree and zoning ordinances.
These challenges present Atlanta with an opportunity to rise to the occasion, and your voice in support of an imminent measure on the docket will count: the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Trees Atlanta have proposed an unprecedented addition to the City’s tree ordinance that could have an instant and profound impact on protecting our tree canopy. The amendment, Ordinance 16-O-1353, would allow for the dollars paid into the tree trust fund (the above-mentioned recompense fees) to be spent to procure forested property that will be designated in perpetuity as preserved, forested land. Currently, those dollars are designated for replanting, and a balance of funds always remains. The tree trust fund was established “for protection, maintenance, and regeneration of the trees and other forest resources in Atlanta” (Section 158-66). Therefore, the amendment is in the spirit of the original intent of the ordinance and tree fund, and would provide the City with a more holistic and nimble approach to protection.
To qualify, a parcel must first meet the criteria outlined in concert with the Department of Watershed Management, and include one or more of a list of requirements, such as a minimum of 80% canopy, at least 50 mature trees on site, and/or be an old-growth forest with endangered or threatened native species present. Once assessed for suitability, approved by City Council and purchased by the City, the land would then be available for public use at no cost and protected in perpetuity.
Atlanta is perhaps the only major city in America that retains a viable portion of high-quality, native forest land. But 94% of Atlanta’s land is privately owned, so most of that forested land is subject to development. It is more effective and beneficial for our ecosystem to protect existing forested land than to solely plant more trees. We simply cannot replant a forest overnight; the complex and dynamic interrelationships between trees, soil, nutrients, water, fungi, other layers of plants, and wildlife cannot be instantly conjured up. Isolated urban trees will never be as healthy or long-lived as those trees sheltered in the eco-community of a forest. They work hard and have to adapt to some pretty tough growing conditions. So we must also focus on tree policy, acknowledging the dichotomy between individual trees in the built environment and parcels of forested land and, as such, treating them differently.
Let’s be smart about how we grow and prioritize protection of the very habitat that makes this big, hot, southern city livable, after all. We still have an opportunity to build communities that continue to be integrated with high-quality, urban forests. Please write to your district’s City Council Member and express your support for forested land acquisition by the City. To show your support for more tree protection measures, visit treesatlanta.org/pledge to read and sign the Atlanta Canopy Alliance Pledge.
By Christina Gibson, Canopy Conservation Coordinator, Trees Atlanta