The Shrinking Canopy Asphalt covers more of Baltimore every year, making summers hotter, air fouler, costs higher. Trees are a money-saving solution -- but convincing anyone is a tough struggle for the urban forester.


Will Baltimore become a desert, just another hot dry spot on the map?

It's a nightmarish thought, but not an impossible one. Consider the trend-line:

More than 31 percent of the Baltimore area, including the city and a thin ring of suburbs, is sheltered by trees; 17 percent is covered by grass. The rest -- more than half the land in the metro area -- is under brick, concrete or asphalt.

This impervious cover is advancing the way a sandy desert advances. Little by little, it eats the green.

The canopy is shrinking.

As this process continues, the metropolitan area grows hotter. The air grows more foul. Floods become more common. You've heard of global warming? This, in part, is what makes it happen.

What can be done to slow this?

Plant more trees.

Good idea, but it sounds easier to do than it is. Ask Jim Dicker; in Baltimore he's the man to speak to about trees. He's the city arborist. His mission is to stave off the Great Baltimore Desert. It's a big job, possibly too big, considering his resources.

With the $2.5 million or so in his budget, Dicker pays himself and his people and buys upward of 1,500 new trees a year. But Baltimore needs many more, he says.

And he has another problem. His office has just been repositioned bureaucratically in a way that some observers feel won't enhance its influence in city affairs.

"We've gone from being a division within the Department of Recreation and Parks to a section within the Department of Public Works," Dicker says.

To further vex the diligent arborist, some Baltimoreans simply don't like trees -- they think they're messy, with their leaves and all; they attract birds, and everybody knows what birds do.

But all is not lost for the tree man. Unanticipated help is being offered from Washington. American Forests, a national environmental organization based there, has come up with a way to make the case for trees in language every city planner or budget director or citizen can understand: dollars and cents.

American Forests calculates that the benefit to Baltimore from its trees in terms of improved air quality is $11 million a year; in terms of storm-water control, $340 million. This is what it would cost the city, besides what it spends now, to maintain a tolerable quality of physical life in the absence of trees.

Were Baltimore to expand its tree cover to 40 percent, those benefits would grow, respectively, to $14 million and $442 million a year.

You could argue that Baltimore is not doing that badly. American Forests recently examined the tree cover in four cities -- Baltimore, Atlanta, Austin, Texas, and Milwaukee. Baltimore, with its 31 percent, had the second-largest tree cover. Austin had the most extensive, some 34 percent. Atlanta's was 27 percent and Milwaukee's just 18 percent.

But Atlanta holds a cautionary tale for Baltimore: Its urban forest has declined most dramatically -- by 60 percent in just two decades -- from rapid growth. An illustration, developed from satellite photographs, shows how the impervious cover -- the hot areas of Atlanta -- has spread.

There is no such image of Baltimore yet. But since urbanization has increased 135 percent in the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area since 1950, the picture here might not be all that dissimilar.

This according to Gary Moll, who used to be the urban forest coordinator at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources before he joined American Forests in 1982.

His work at American Forests is much the same as it was in Maryland, except it's on a national scale. Three surveys he has orchestrated since 1987 on the state of city forests show they are in serious decline coast to coast.

"Urban decision-makers do not have enough information about the benefits provided by natural systems," Moll wrote.

This situation, he says, prompted American Forests to change its accent in an effort to provide such information.

"In the past the people who lobbied on behalf of the urban forest talked about the aesthetic value of trees," said Moll. "We talked and nobody listened. So we decided to talk the language of decision-makers, politicians."

The language of money.

Planting, not waiting

Whether this new approach will help make city planners, politicians and public works people more tree-minded is uncertain. But Jim Dicker's not waiting. He was out there earlier this month fighting the good fight in northeast Baltimore, supervising one of his crews planting a 6-year-old sycamore in the 4800 block of Arabia Avenue.

"This tree," he said, spanning its slender trunk with his hand, "has an 80 to 90 percent chance of surviving."

Why? Because it is unlikely it will be vandalized in the Waltherson area, he said. And the good people on Arabia Avenue will water it.

This alludes to the attitude problem Dicker faces: Some people just don't like trees. Many of the people of East Baltimore, in and around Highlandtown, have always been unreceptive to trees.

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