Opinion: CT-based Friends of Animals branches out to save trees

Robert O'Brien's tree illustrations of trees that can offer fall color. This is the Red Maple.
Robert O'Brien's tree illustrations of trees that can offer fall color. This is the Red Maple.Robert O'Brien

While Friends of Animals’ work to protect wildlife and critical habitat extends internationally, this week it hit close to home — literally outside our window in Darien, where we are headquartered.

Monday a crew from the Darien Public Works Department began the removal of the first of four healthy trees abutting sidewalks around our office building — a plan put in place, we were told, because a woman sued the town after she tripped on a sidewalk and broke her wrist a couple blocks away.

Shocked, heartbroken staff members looked on as a healthy oak tree was dismembered — we had not seen the posted signs warning of the removal and missed a chance to file a formal complaint.

Filled with sadness and outrage, we sprang into action, went outside and stood in front of the second 100-year-old sycamore tree, forcing the crew to stop what they were doing and leave until town officials could hear FoA’s reasons for opposing the dreadful plan.

The truth is if we start cutting down healthy trees because of a philosophy of “someone might trip and file a lawsuit,” we’re doomed. What about the public safety issue of climate change and the negative environmental impact of cutting down healthy trees?

Trees provide oxygen, store carbon, provide habitat for insects,wildlife and plants, prevent erosion, and provide shade.

An average healthy urban tree absorbs about 330 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. Trees improve air quality by removing pollutants from the atmosphere. In 2010, 17.4 million tons of air pollution were removed by trees and forests in the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). This pollution removal had an estimated human health effect valued at $6.8 billion, including the avoidance of 850 incidences of human mortality and the prevention of 670,000 acute respiratory symptom events.

The net cooling effect of a healthy tree is equivalent to 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day. Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by 30 percent and can save 20-50 percent in energy used for heating.

What we witnessed was a crime against nature and humanity.

While Darien does have a policy to plant new trees somewhere when trees are removed, ecologists point out that this practice is not a silver bullet for solving complex environmental problems. When a tree is cut down, any carbon it has taken up returns to the atmosphere. To achieve the benefits from tree planting, the trees need to grow for a decade or more.

Of course, we want safe, walkable sidewalks, but we also want the preservation of trees.

We believe Darien, the 10th wealthiest community in the United States, according to Bloomberg’s Richest Places 2020 annual index, can have both.

That’s because other cities have paved the way for this achievement.

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation’s Trees and Sidewalks Program operates under a leave trees standing philosophy. “Our street trees are living breathing parts of our communities. They bring us shade in the warm months, shield us from the cold in the winter, and provide fresh air for us to breath all year long,” the agency’s website states.

The program employs a variety of design strategies and construction techniques to repair sidewalks around trees that optimize the pedestrian experience while minimizing damage to tree roots. Methods include tree bed expansion, ramping, strengthening, and base material.

A pilot program in Logan, Utah, uses Porous Pave, a pour-in-place permeable paving material that is highly porous, flexible and resilient enough that it can withstand root expansion and tree growth without cracking or breaking.

Perhaps part of the lack of reverence for trees locally is a tree warden who also operates and profits from a tree removal business. Can such a person represent the interests of our beloved trees or is there a conflict of interest?

Rest assured, Friends of Animals stands with trees.

Priscilla Feral is a Rowayton resident and president of Friends of Animals.