Above the Waterline: Tree huggers of Atlanta unite!

I admit it. I am an unabashed “tree hugger” and have been for my entire adult life. Starting in the 1970s, when I became involved with the Sierra Club and environmental issues, through my career as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which included seven years serving on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, I was repeatedly labeled a tree hugger.

I used to cringe whenever I heard what was (almost always) meant as a derogatory term to describe me and my life’s work. Eventually, I learned to shake my head and roll my eyes, understanding that these attacks were a trademark of people unable to counter my positions with reasoned argument.

Today, I’m proud to say that I’m a tree hugger, a term whose origins go back 300 years. The first tree huggers were people belonging to a branch of Hinduism who, in 1730, died while trying to protect the trees in their village in India from being turned into raw material to build a palace. They literally clung to the trees, while being slaughtered. Ultimately, their non-violent resistance led to a royal decree prohibiting the cutting of trees in villages; today, these areas are described as wooded oases in the midst of a desert.

I believe that special trees are firmly planted in the memories of our lives. For me, they include: the dogwood in the front yard of my childhood home in Buckhead; the driftwood tree (perhaps a gumbo limbo) that created an imaginary playhouse on a Florida beach; the magnolia that my boys climbed in our Ansley Park back yard, and the sycamores that line the Chattahoochee River downstream of Atlanta. My memory of this summer’s float trip on the Salmon River in Idaho will always include the stately ponderosa pines and their vanilla-fragrant bark.

Those of us who live in Atlanta are fortunate that we can proudly and accurately call our hometown “The City in a Forest.” With our temperate climate and high average annual rainfall, Atlanta ranks at the top nationally for its tree canopy with nearly 48 percent coverage. Trees are our defining natural feature. That said, there are serious reasons to be concerned.

While the view of our city from tall buildings and landing airplanes is still lush and green, Atlanta is losing trees at a rapid rate due to multiple causes: weather (drought and powerful storms), invasive species and pests, and the natural death of trees planted in the 1920s, when Intown neighborhoods were built. Importantly, most of our iconic urban forest is located on private property and is largely unprotected.

Additionally, there is a renewed construction boom. Between July 2016 and July 2017, the city of Atlanta issued more than $4 billion in construction permits, more than during any other 12 month period in its history – and the city is projected to double in population over the next 25 years, according to City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane.

In 2017, the city of Atlanta published The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community, which provides a framework for what it calls “inclusive growth,” based on five core values: equity, progress, ambition, access and nature. It acknowledges that change and growth are coming and outlines practical ways we can work toward “a vibrant city in a verdant forest.”

An Urban Ecology Framework (UEF) that further explores the nature component of the Atlanta City Design vision is expected to be completed early next year. Among anticipated outcomes is a proposed overhaul of the city’s tree ordinance. This important regulatory tool was revised in late 2016 to allow recompense funds to be used to acquire existing forestland, in addition to planting new trees; however, additional improvements are much needed.

Other UEF recommendations may include: a list of large forest areas in the city that are intact (not fragmented) and should be targeted for immediate acquisition, the expansion of existing nature preserves, a new designation for areas with enhanced tree protection, and tree stewardship guidelines.

Increasingly, elected officials, planners, business leaders, park advocates and neighborhood representatives are acknowledging that urban ecology must serve as the foundation upon which policy decisions and investments are based to protect our city in the forest. They understand that trees – in truth, our city’s “lungs” – help clean and cool the air, filter the water and stabilize the soil, while providing a critical role in sustaining plants, birds and insects.

Trees are good. Hugs are good. What’s not to like about tree huggers who are working to keep places, like Atlanta, lush and green for everyone’s benefit? It’s past time for all of us tree huggers to stand proud and save our urban tree canopy!

Take the Tree Canopy pledge at this link.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards. 

2 Comments
  1. Thank you for the article.
    Your comment about the dogwood in the front yard stuck a note. We have a beautiful old dogwood ( Cherokee Princess I believe ) in our front yard. It was replanted soon after we moved here in 1979 and has out lived all our expectations. Very large and majestic with thousands of bright white flowers in the spring. (Full sunlight!)
    It’s been on our mind a lot lately. It’s not in the right-of-way at all but the county engineers want a “construction easement” and are saying they’ll cut it down next spring. We’re in Cherokee County. Our little country road will never be the same. We don’t want their money, we want our tree. We’ve decided not to sign their papers. We were young when we moved in and planted her. Our tree survived with us all these years, provided spring beauty, summer shade and fall color. Signing her away would be a betrayal of sorts. Friends say the county will just take it anyway.
    When they come to take her I’m gonna try to save a piece. Now that I’m retired, maybe she can provide me a cane to stir the memories.

  2. Thanks for your comment Alan! What a lovely story about “your” tree, although I’m sorry to hear that it may be cut down. Definitely keep a piece to help stir memories and, if you haven’t taken them already, I suggest photos of her through the seasons. I also have pieces of trees that were important to me, including a piece of bark from the huge white oak that stood in front of the house where I raised my sons. Good luck! Sally Bethea

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