Tree Matters: How Trees Pay Us Back

Supplement - Trees, Ornamental & Bedding Plant

Growers, landscapers, arborists and the entire green industry understand that trees matter. Yet we sometimes undersell the power of this message.

March 17, 2011

Adding a monetary and environmental value to trees can help show their importance. Photo by Jim Chatfield.

Growers, landscapers, arborists and the entire green industry understand that trees matter. Yet we sometimes undersell the power of this message. Though we hear a great deal about the greening of America, somehow this does not always translate to the original green industry for our customers. Instead “green” for most people tends to mean renewable energy, recycling, carpooling and hybrid vehicles – all good things, but not what we mean by the green industry.  

This need not be the case and certainly is not our future. Not long ago, I attended a lecture by Michael Pollan, the author of "Botany of Desire" and "In Defense of Food." It was a lecture in which thousands of college students were literally hanging over the balconies listening to his every word. At one point he proclaimed the importance of solar power. Was he talking about solar panels, energy policy, various engineering innovations?

Not exactly. His next word was photosynthesis. Those students were on their feet with a huge roar, energized and inspired by the idea of green plants doing their thing, starting with the food chain. Imagine, rock concert-like vibes at the mention of photosynthesis and green plants, our industry’s life blood.

We are at a moment of truly transformational opportunity.

Despite economic turmoil, there are key factors, in addition to the attention of our youthful future noted above, that make this our time for the green industry to be at the center of the sustainability movement.

How to make it happen.
First are the teachable moments in the media, communities and woodlands relative to the threat of invasive species, such as the Asian longhorned beetle, the emerald ash borer and the fungus that causes sudden oak death. These can be seen in a negative light, illustrating the liabilities of communities with regard to multi-million dollar tree removals, but these realities have captured the attention of our customers. And therein lies an opportunity. Not since Dutch elm disease is the public so aware of trees.

Second, user-friendly modeling tools are now becoming available for measuring the economic impact of plants on the environment.  One model, developed by the U.S. Forest Service and its partners, the Arbor Day Foundation, The Davey Tree Expert Co. and the International Society of Arboriculture, is the iTree suite of software. This model of public access software ( has a strong research base that allows estimates of economic value of the environmental services of trees.

Energy savings (as trees cool in summer and lessen heat loss in winter), stormwater remediation, air quality benefits, carbon sequestration and property value enhancement are parameters measured by iTree. And iTree is scaleable: planners use it for developing regional canopy increase goals, regulatory relief and carbon credits.  Urban foresters use it for an environmental audit of their community forests coupled with tree inventories. However, there are many smaller-scale applications for the green industry.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could find out the environmental value of the 50 trees you sold to a commercial property? What about designing a label for the trees you install that list the services it will provide once it matures? If this sounds intriguing, adapt it for your business. Start by checking out how simple it is to get this information by visiting

All you need to get detailed information about a tree’s benefits is your ZIP code (energy benefits in Arizona are different from Alabama), the tree identification, the diameter of the tree (or a reasonable estimate) and the general tree location (e.g. parkland vs. single-family residential).

For example, a single 24-inch diameter pin oak in a Wooster, Ohio, parkland setting provides $214 in annual benefits to the community. These benefits include stormwater remediation, energy savings, air quality benefits, carbon sequestration and property value. It’s really cool stuff how our leafy friends pay us back.

Add a value to each tree.
Groups such as The Ohio State University Extension’s Why Trees Matter Signature Program are using this information educationally in a number of ways. Working with volunteers, we help do tree inventories to show everyone how valuable their current trees are (and of course the importance of continued planting and maintenance). For Toledo, Ohio, street trees, it is $15.1 million in annual benefits. The energy benefits (electricity and natural gas savings) for Toledo exceeds $3.9 million and for stormwater remediation exceeds $5.1 million annually. For a smaller community such as Bucyrus, Ohio, it is $345,570. For the Ohio Governor’s Residence and the 101 trees in its Heritage Garden and the surrounding four blocks, it is more than $11,000. 

Think about how your company can work with extension master gardener volunteers or other community volunteers to showcase the value of the trees on the historic town square, the fairgrounds or at a commercial property.

Consider this: there are nonprofit organizations (NPOs) focused on trees throughout the country, from the Casey Tree Foundation in Washington to the Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco. One NPO in Iowa, Trees Forever, has helped plant more than 2.8 million woody plants in Iowa and Illinois. It also is involved in advocacy, working with planners and the political system, in understanding the benefits and importance of trees. Think about how working with such groups will help your company’s community connections.

The political machine.

Which brings us to a third key factor for our opportunity. There is political momentum underway in which public officials are aligning themselves to programs of developing green infrastructure and the greening of cities – and not just of the engineering kind. New regulations and standards for public projects put teeth into this movement. Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago has long cultivated his image of “the green mayor” relative to projects such as green roofs.

Reach the youth. The future is of course in our youth. And not just the college students noted in the photosynthesis story earlier. The green industry needs to connect with youth at an earlier age – something that’s not difficult to do by engaging children in community tree inventories and plantings and working with schools.

How about doing an iTree environmental audit inventory of a local school’s trees?  In the October/November 2009 issue of National Wildlife, there is a short but telling tale. It is about decisions made during the creation of the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children. This dictionary has limited space, so they always think about how many words they can include. For 2007, they added some words that, not surprisingly, deal with the technology revolution: MP3 player, broadband, blog and BlackBerry (with a capital B).

This came at a cost. With limited space, they also removed some words including acorn, fern, dandelion and blackberry – with a small b. As Joni Mitchell wrote and sang, “don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.” This may seem like a small thing, but do not underestimate the power of the pen – or the computer keystroke. Now is the time for the nation’s green industry to maximize the message that trees matter. Be up front and proactive in marketing our role in the greening of America.  We develop, introduce, grow, install, maintain and educate people about trees and other landscape plants that contribute not only to our own industry’s economic future, but also to the environmental and economic future of the nation’s communities. Trees matter.

Jim Chatfield is associate professor and extension specialist, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, Department of Plant Pathology, Ohio State University Extension. He can be reached at