By Don Corrigan (Webster-Kirkwood Times)
With wildfires raging globally and 2019 being the second hottest year on record, even climate change skeptics are starting to look for answers. Could planting a trillion trees reduce carbon pollution and spur a needed cool down?
The trillion trees idea got a big boost last month at the World Economic Forum. Planting trees does present an easier solution than reducing fossil fuel use. Even President Donald Trump said the U.S. would sign onto a tree campaign.
Local tree and horticultural experts are pleased that some movement on the climate change issue seems to be in the works, but they argue that planting trees is no panacea for a problem that is taking a toll on Planet Earth.
“There are many facets to this discussion about trees and climate change, and most of them do have some merit,” said Jerald Pence, coordinator for the horticulture program at St. Louis Community College at Meramec in Kirkwood. His responsibilities include managing an 11-acre garden on the Meramec campus.
“I do think that it’s important to understand that there is rarely a ‘silver bullet’ solution that will fix a big problem so easily,” added Pence. “I think it’s great that something is happening to at least begin a needed discussion.”
Pence has worked in the green industry for 35 years and his program at Meramec is a leader in the state. Mark Grueber works with trees and on forest issues for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and is headquartered at Powder Valley Nature Center on the border of Sunset Hills and Kirkwood.
“Planting a trillion trees is not a panacea. The problem is still fossil fuel burning and that’s what we’re going to have to address when it comes to climate change,” said Grueber. “Planting trees can obviously be a good thing for us and the environment.
“However, there’s so much involved: Where do you find a trillion plants? What kind of trees are we talking about? Where are all the trees going to be planted? he asked.
“You can’t just plant them on the Great Plains; the plains are not for growing trees,” said Grueber. “So, are you talking about urban and suburban trees? They need to be managed. So, who is going to manage them? It’s not so easy.”
Grueber said that it takes time for trees to grow and to start storing carbon. He said that if humans start planting only fast-growing trees, they are going to wreck the ecology and do more damage than they actually address.
An Earth Day Success?
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of great ideas come and go,” said Grueber. “I remember when we planted 10,000 trees on Earth Day in 1990 with most of them in the area of the north St. Louis riverfront. We planted a bottomland species.
“No one counted on the Great 1993 St. Louis Flood,” recalled Grueber. “The flood waters just scoured out all the trees and sent them down river. Planting has to be done logically, with a lot of forethought, and in a responsible way.”
Grueber said most people don’t understand that states like Missouri actually have more trees than before European settlement in America. He said trees and forests used to be naturally thinned out by fire, and those fires are not allowed to happen.
One piece of logic that has been left out of the trillion trees idea involves the oceans. With 55% of our carbon emissions now being absorbed by the oceans, the damage to that part of the planet is incalculable – and that’s a large portion of carbon emissions not even factored into the trillion tree solution.
Before working with MDC, Grueber worked with Forest ReLeaf. Meredith Perkins is now executive director of Forest ReLeaf, which advocates for trees in St. Louis and beyond.
“The problem with a trillion trees from a political standpoint is that it just gives polluting industries a pass,” said Perkins of Forest ReLeaf. “It’s like OK, we’ve planted some trees, so now we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing all along.
“But the great thing about a trillion trees is that it has people’s attention,” added Perkins. “It’s an audacious idea and it has people talking. And if it gets people to keep the trees alive that they have now – well, that is progress.”
Forest ReLeaf has an entire slate of tree activities for March. A visit to firstname.lastname@example.org reveals Tree Camp events, a TreeKeepers study group and tree potting days at the CommuniTree Gardens starting March 21.
“From my perspective, trees can be a part of the climate change solution, but there are so many other boxes that can be checked,” said Perkins. “Planting and nurturing trees can address erosion, storm water mitigation, and particulate matter pollution that causes asthma. We can’t do without trees.”
Hank Stelzer, a State Forestry Extension Specialist with the University of Missouri, referred to the old adage: The best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago, but the second best time to plant a tree is today.
Stelzer said a trillion trees solution to global warming raises a lot of questions, but he said there is no question that an increase in our “green infrastructure, our urban tree canopy,” is an optimal solution for so many of our problems.
“As per our climate, we are not having half-inch rain events now. We are having two-inch and five-inch rain events at a time when we have given up our green spaces to impervious surfaces,” Stelzer explained. “That is a big problem.
“Trees can partially address that situation just by merely slowing down the storm water, and also stopping all this erosion we see all around us, and reducing the recurrence of flooding,” Stelzer said.
“And trees have a calming effect on people – and in these times, we sure need that,” Stelzer stressed. “Trees are monuments to peace. Go visit the Burr Oak near McBaine, Missouri. It has been through 250 years of good times and bad times. That can give you some peace.”