Zimmerman: San Jose’s trees improve human health and save money
A San Jose street with trees planted by Our City Forest. File photo.

Anyone who has ever read “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein knows humans take for granted the benefits and gifts of the trees around us. We underestimate how they impact our lives and the weight of our responsibility to protect them.

It seems like, finally, we are learning how important trees are, not only to planetary health, but specifically to human health and well-being.

The right trees in the right place

The most significant pledge to come out of the COP 26 climate summit was a pledge by countries representing 85% of the world’s forests to halt or reverse deforestation by 2030. The United States, as well as other major forested countries such as Brazil, Canada, and Indonesia, all signed this agreement. President Joe Biden also promised the U.S. would lead by example, and announced it would spend $9 billion to conserve and restore forests.

This pledge, and the money to uphold it, is a significant step forward. Individual countries are going to have to get creative in how they address climate change, as an international agreement is increasingly unlikely. Forests and trees and are an excellent option.

Forests absorb about one-third of the global CO2 produced each year. Deforestation has been a major contributor to climate change.

The fight to protect California’s trees

California has 33 million acres of forest, and we are rightfully proud to encourage visitors to see places such as the redwoods. We conveniently forget, or don’t even know that since the 1850s, 95% of California’s original old-growth redwood forests have been logged.

California can leverage its forests in two ways. Re-foresting is an option, though this can be fraught with difficulties such as problems with location, water availability and biodiversity loss. It is far better to focus on protecting the trees and forests we have and to let these areas expand naturally.

“California’s old-growth redwoods, the tallest and among the oldest trees on Earth, store more carbon per acre of forest than any other forest in the world—by a long shot,” said Sam Hodder, CEO of Save the Redwood League. “More than the Amazon rainforest or the conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest.”

Save the Redwoods League is currently fundraising to purchase five miles of undeveloped coastline forests in Mendocino County. The Lost Coast Property is a second-growth forest between 80-100 years old and is under threat to accelerated harvesting or development.  Saving such existing lands and letting them expand and interconnect with other protected lands is far better, less expensive and lower maintenance than re-planting.

Hodder noted that through accelerated protection and good stewardship done in partnership with tribes, local communities and public agencies, the redwood landscape can grow old again and provide a critical ingredient in the fight against climate change.

San Jose’s trees

Trees in our communities are just as important to human health as large swaths of forests hours away. Simply being within sight of green spaces is linked to improved mental health, reduced stress and better work and school performance. Simply put, humans need nature, such as trees, to thrive.

San Jose’s revised draft Community Forest Management Plan cites research that has even found tree-lined streets contribute to healthier lifestyles. Unexpectedly, they are also host to fewer vehicular accidents. There is even evidence that having well-managed vegetation acts as a crime deterrent.

Money may not grow on trees, but trees are one of those rare commodities which do become more valuable as they grow older. In fact, every street tree returns almost six dollars in benefits to every single dollar invested.

San Jose’s 2007 Green Vision plan had a goal of planting 100,000 trees. By 2014, the city—in conjunction with Our City Forest—planted a total of 12,289 trees which sequestered approximately 479.3 MT of CO2 equivalent. The city’s goal was to have all of the trees planted by 2022; however, an apparent lack of resources has meant only between 15,000 to 20,000 trees have been planted thus far.

Unfortunately, the management plan also found San Jose’s canopy cover has fallen by almost 2%, representing an area of about 2.7 miles. The key findings of the document are telling. Foremost, the city needs to act quickly to address the trend of declining canopy cover. The biggest barrier to this, in addition to fractured collaboration amongst stakeholders, is the omnipresent problem of money. The funding devoted to tree planting and management is far below what is necessary.

Maybe we haven’t learned from “The Giving Tree” after all.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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