Green Beat: The One Million Trees Project

By Celeste Chaney

Salt Lake County’s ambitious project: One million trees for one million people by 2017.
by Celeste Chaney
Imagine a world without trees. There’s the obvious aesthetic loss. Without shade, cooling costs would soar. The value of property would diminish and more non-renewable resources would have to be used to build and furnish homes. Thousands of species of birds and other animals would vanish after losing their source of shelter and food. Air pollution would fog neighborhoods and playgrounds, and soil erosion and rain run-off would become nearly unmanageable. Local climates would no longer be naturally moderated and temperatures would quickly rise.

To ensure Salt Lake never falls victim to this scenario, last fall Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon unveiled a promising and yet challenging initiative: the One Million Trees program, a collaboration among cities, businesses, residents and community organizations. The goal, to plant one million trees for one million people by the year 2017, would sustain the necessary boost in Salt Lake’s diminishing tree canopy and provide many benefits to the county.

American Forests, the nation’s oldest non-profit citizens’ conservation organization and a pioneer in the science and practice of urban forestry, be_gan measuring urban tree canopies in 1992 as a way to motivate cities to keep their ecosystems in check. Since then, American Forests has developed specific tree canopy percentage recommendations for various cities and climates throughout the United States. Currently, Salt Lake’s tree canopy rests at 10%, while the canopy cover recommended for metropolitan areas in our region is more than double that-25%. And Gary Moll, senior vice president of the Urban Ecosystem Center at American Forests, however, claims that recommendation is conservative. "We typically like to see the canopy percentage of an area in the 40% range; 25% is usually the number given as a general estimate for an urban residential area, not for a downtown area," says Moll. It is possible that an area like Salt Lake, which includes suburban areas, urban residential areas and an urban downtown center, may have an average recommended tree canopy of 25%. Regardless, he said, 10% is just too low.

Worse, no one knows exactly how long Salt Lake has rested at this low percentile. "There have not been consistent or long-range systems in place to monitor our tree canopy," says Lorna Vogt, the open space coordinator for Salt Lake County. Salt Lake’s decline in the tree canopy, which is estimated from observation, is most likely due to the removal of street and urban trees for the purposes of new city or residential development, and through attrition. "The result of the loss of agricultural land to new development has a similar effect, in that we lose the natural cooling and create new heat islands," she says.

The Urban Heat Islands Effect (UHIE) is a phenomenon that has been studied and documented in many temperate region cities for years. One of the most significant causes of UHIE is the replacement of green spaces with impervious materials, such as concrete and asphalt, as cities expand and fill in. Moll says city planning must involve a balance between natural and unnatural materials to sustain the environmental health of the valley. "You have to balance the system," he says. "In Denver they didn’t have a high percentage of tree canopy area. When they furthered development in the city and surrounding areas they had to increase the number of trees, and they did."

The program’s goal includes more than just planting trees, though. More goes into reforesting a city than just finding the spaces and sticking trees there. Education is required, since trees, like other living things, grow better in some places than others. "We need to match species to spaces," says Salt Lake City’s urban forester, Bill Rutherford. Rutherford helped One Million Trees determine which trees would be most suitable to plant here. "Historically, we just see a space and put a tree there. Those not well suited to the space are removed or pruned, altering their structure, beauty and performance," he says.

Rutherford strongly encourages people to plant trees as long as they understand the purpose and the responsibility. "Longterm maintenance is crucial. A tree is a living, breathing dynamic organism that changes weekly, monthly and every year," he said, "People must be willing to provide what the tree needs." Private tree maintenance will be crucial to the One Million Trees program because 90% of the trees will have to be planted on private property. The benefits to homeowners will be innumerable. According to the USDA Forest Service, Center for Urban Forestry Research, for each one dollar invested in urban forest management, $1.89 in benefits is returned to residents. Shade trees planted on the east and west side of a typical home can reduce heating and cooling costs by 25% and make building up to 20 degrees cooler in the summer. Trees also improve air and water quality by filtering pollutants. Planting a tree now will add 10% to the value of a property when sold at maturity.

In case that isn’t enough incentive to plant a few trees, Smith’s and Rocky Mountain Power have donated $35,000 to help One Million Trees provide seedlings to homeowners and other members of the private sector. Additionally, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands offered a $10,000 matching grant. But don’t think that is taking the responsibility away from you, me and the guy next door. The

program’s success will mean our success, but it will be entirely dependent of our efforts at home. To record a tree planting or to find out what trees are best to plant for different locations, visit

Celeste Chaney is a junior in communication at the University of Utah. In 2006 she was recognized as a Freedom Forum Free Spirit Scholar for her efforts as a student journalist, and has been addicted to journalism and travel ever since.

This article was originally published on December 1, 2008.