Trees for Trees: How Saving the Urban Forest Could Help Save the Rain Forest and Save Us All

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The Central Park Conservancy faces months of clean-up and hundreds of thousands of dollars in clean-up costs to repair the damage caused by an unusually fierce storm on August 18. Donations welcome. (photo: Tony Yang)

The Central Park Conservancy faces months of clean-up and hundreds of thousands of dollars in clean-up costs to repair the damage caused by an unusually fierce storm on August 18. Donations welcome. (photo: Tony Yang)

Making a right from two wrongs; For the love of a park; Inspiration from Aldo Leopold, MLB-branded grass & Neopets; Cyber-seedlings & fundraising; “You had me at orangutan”

By all accounts the storm that hit New York’s Central Park last week didn’t last very long, but the devastation was breathtaking. In a matter of minutes, winds approaching hurricane-strength flattened hundreds of old beloved trees and damaged hundreds more. With roots in the air and limbs askew, and the dead and wounded strewn everywhere, the soft green heart of this hard gray city had taken a direct hit. The days that followed were filled with the cracking of ripped timber, the whine of power saws and the relentless buzz of wood-chippers. Grass will grow where giants once stood. Sunlight will filter down to the urban forest floor for the first time in years. New trees will be planted. And in a few decades, incredibly, no one will be the wiser.

Central Park, after all, was never the forest primeval. Still, there is something sacred about old trees – even if their age is measured in decades rather than centuries, and their arrangement determined by a landscape architect. They grew up with us, or we with them. In a place of constant change they are, simply, constant. If trees can be so easily uprooted, what chance have we? It is unnerving to see how shallow and vulnerable a tall tree’s roots really are.


Although I live in Chicago, I visit New York several times a year and have come to know the Park well enough to have my favorite places. I know Spring has finally arrived when flocks of birders at the Ramble start comparing notes on who’s returned and set up nests, while flocks of Japanese brides/grooms/photographers start flitting to scenic spots to set up Wedding Pictures. In  summer, it’s bicycles, drumming circles, reading on a shady rock, serenaded by an old man playing un-hummable but delicious melodies on a one-stringed Chinese instrument. Fall is filled with the smell and crunch of leaves, walking down the promenade near the statue of Christopher Columbus. And Winter – if I am lucky enough to be marooned by a LaGuardia-closing blizzard – is a trip to the Museum of Natural History for some fossils and stars, followed by a few quick snow angels in the Park.

Always, there are the trees. Budding, shady, raining seeds, etched with a white filigree sparkle.

According to the Central Park Conservancy, the tab for clean up and replanting will easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (donations welcome). The true cost —  lost views, lost homes (nests & burrows) and lost familiarity — is incalculable.


We will do whatever it takes to save the trees we know and love. But in the time it took the storm to turn the Park into a leafy war zone, several thousand trees were intentionally shredded in rain forests around the world.

The loss of even 1,000 trees in the middle of Manhattan is unlikely to have much of an impact on the city’s “urban heat island,” but the loss of massive swaths of CO2-absorbing, biodiversity-critical, moisture-recycling rain forest will help heat up the whole planet. It can even be argued that without the rain forests, the outlook for New York’s urban forest is fraught. A warmed world could mean more intense storms, droughts and the faster spread of tree disease-carrying insects (warmer winters mean fewer bugs die off).

As I read about the clean-up in New York, I began to wonder whether there might be a way to weave these two tales of arboreal tragedy into an opportunity.


sandcountyalmanacIf your path has not crossed Aldo Leopold’s yet, the time has come. Leopold is best known as the author a A Sand County Almanac an Sketches Here and There,” in which he argues for a “land ethic” that acknowledges and values what Nature provides. Along with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Leopold’s book, published in 1949, shortly after his death, helped lay the philosophical foundations for ecology.

The “Sand County” in title refers to a piece of worn out Dust Bowl-era farmland he bought an hour’s drive north of Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a professor of forestry at the university. With in the help of his wife, five children and a nearly endless supply of pine seedlings (Leopold also founded one of the country’s first arboretums at UW), he set about testing his ideas for healing and restoring land. Year after year, the Family Leopold planted thousands of trees. Many were lost to drought, but they kept trying.

Today, hiking through the 200+ acres of what is now The Aldo Leopold Foundation, giant pines tower overhead. Ironically, too many trees survived, weakening the forest in the competition for limited resources.  In 2003, a selective harvest was organized to help the forest become more resilient to drought, disease and insects.

Logs were dried, stripped, cut into lumber and used to build a LEED Platinum “Legacy Center,” for educational programs, retreats and small conferences (the building was awarded 61 out of a possible 69 points, for those who keep score).


Unfortunately, Central Park trees cannot be turned to into lumber for fear of spreading insect pests (Asian long-horned beetles & emerald ash borers). Even cords of firewood are out the question. The only option: chipping logs for in situ mulch.

But there is still a way to create a legacy of hope a la the Leopold Foundation. 

If Major League Baseball can license and sell ballpark grass seed and turf, surely Central Park can sell branded tree seedlings at a premium. Now take the legacy global: For every dollar that goes to Central Park, ring up two dollars for rain forest projects. Call it “Trees for Trees.”  The Central Park Zoo could mount a biodiversity exhibit, connecting the dots between animals on display and the dire straits their wild kin face from habitat loss. Perhaps a “Tree Story” show at the Museum of Natural History. Or a website with virtual seedlings that can be “watered” and tended to,  just like Neopets. Buy a cyber-seedling and be part of a Facebook Forest or Twitter Trees…

No doubt there are many other, better ideas out there, but you get the drift. Sometimes two wrongs actually can make a right. Actually a lot of rights: Mend the Park. Repair the rain forest. Help the planet. And while we’re at it: Clean the watershed. Stabilize hillside erosion. Scrub the air. Reduce farm fertilizer run-off. Provide wildlife habitat. Give migrating birds a home to go home to…

So, consider this a call to arms for green-minded marketers: How can we actually make this happen?


There is, of course, no shortage of worthy reforestation projects around the world in desperate need of support. But as long as I have the floor, I nominate Willie Smits’ work in Borneo to start. The projects are comprehensive and practical, a deft mix of tech, cutting edge biology, social entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship (TED talk):

In July, Smits gave another, longer talk at the ESRI Users’ Conference, detailing the use of GIS mapping to monitor deforestation to track down illegal logging operations and for selecting the best sites for reforestation:

Willie Smits' keynote address at the 2009 ESRI User's Conference

Willie Smits' keynote address at the 2009 ESRI User's Conference

Smits’ ideas have been proven in the field and offer genuine hope that there may yet be a way to turn things around.

Imagine that.



How to Plant & Mulch a Tree – from City Trees: The City of Chicago’s Guide to Urban Tree Care

Orangutan Outreach: website for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, the largest primate rescue project in the world – also information on deforestation, palm oil plantations, habitat loss and what you can do to help.

3 Responses

  1. […] peat-lands, are cleared from monoculture oil palm plantations. (read more about Smits work in “Trees for Trees” post – page down to section on “You Had Me at Organgutan” – includes […]

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