What’s the value of a tree?

 BCL 8 completed our study of systems in Burlington with a look at natural systems. We focused specifically on trees, seeking to understand the value of trees in our city and, more broadly, in global ecosystems. 

Our first day out was beautiful and chilly, with several inches of fresh powder beneath our feet as we tromped into Arms Forest for some observations. Zoe Richards, the Director of Burlington Wildways and the Chair of the City’s Conservation Board, met us there. 

Zoe makes a fine point.
Sketching trees helps to tune into their unique details.

It’s surprisingly difficult to identify most trees in winter. But we began to tune into the clues from bark and branches and needles to distinguish one tree from another. Some of us used iNaturalist, a powerful app that uses AI to identify species of just about anything; although even iNaturalist can get stumped without any leaves to study. For many of us, after just one morning, what we once saw as ‘the woods’ started to become a community of Red Maple trees, American Beeches, White Ash, Red and White Oaks.

Branching patterns can help to identify trees.
Gussie connects with an American beech.

I have gained a new perspective on trees that I didn’t have before going out with our community partner Zoe and measuring trees. In the beginning, I wrote “personally I don’t see trees as living things, I see them as something in nature that provides humans with things.” After the tree trip, I gained some knowledge on how trees actually do a lot more than I thought they did for not just humans but animals also. When I went home that day, I looked at the trees in my neighborhood and noticed how they were much different than the trees that grew in the forest, the trees were much skinnier and shorter.

~ Adrien

Now that I know more about trees, I can say that our community can improve a lot when we help others by sharing our knowledge. It was an interesting experience for me to learn how to identify trees and measure them with the ruler.  Because I did not have a “relationship with trees”, I did not know how to recognize them more than just saying that they are tall and usually green. But… now, I am able to differentiate between which tree is an American Beech, White Oak, Maple or Red Oak.

~ Natalia

We returned to the woods with Zoe a week later, after a few warm nights had transformed the paths into icy slip ‘n’ slide tracks. This time, our challenge was (first, to stay upright and then) to collect data, recording species and ‘diameter at breast height’ data for every tree inside plots of 100 square meters.

Ella rides the trails in Arms Forest.
Zoe introduces us to a Biltmore stick.
LJ measures the DBH of a red maple.
Andy and Ethan take a reading.
Priya and Oli take a break with a red maple.

Back inside, we entered our aggregated data in another online tool, iTree, to calculate the ‘ecosystem services’ provided by the trees in our plots. We did some extrapolation to estimate city-scale benefits of Burlington’s trees. What we discovered was that tens of millions of dollars of value are bound up in Burlington’s woods; and they create millions of dollars of value through carbon sequestration, air quality and water quality benefits every year.

We used data we collected in Arms Forest to calculate the dollar value of trees. I wrote in my journal, “The dollar value of BTV forests per year = $5,261,915” We were able to see the positive impact trees have on our community, but we also considered if monetizing this natural system was a good thing. It’s clear this system helps our community thrive and is a good financial investment, but how could just looking at the economic benefits be harmful?  In my journal, I wrote, “Putting a dollar value on trees may encourage the idea that other things could be way more profitable-like cutting down the trees and building a shopping mall.”

~ Sadie

Before BCL and learning about what trees can do for us, I took them for granted. In my journal I wrote: “I don’t really pay much attention to the trees that surround me in everyday life.” Even though I wrote about this in my journal not too long ago, my mindset on that first sentence has already changed. I am going to strive to pay more attention to the trees that give us life. They give us the healthy air we breathe, they help to cool us down, they are even fighting to save our planet by sucking out all that nasty carbon dioxide that’s stuck up in the atmosphere.

~ Emma

Our third field experience, a street walk, focused on the additional benefits of urban trees. Their cooling effect on urban streets is remarkable. They also slow stormwater runoff, remove harmful particulates and pollutants, extend street life and quantifiably improve human health. One study concluded that the lifetime benefits of a single, healthy urban street tree could approach $90,000. 

Zoe explains the difficult life of a street tree.
Time to replant – maybe with more room for roots next time?
We came across this sign on our urban tree walk – how appropriate!

Altogether, it’s clear that trees are one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight to address climate change – and so many other environmental problems. They are inexpensive, they build themselves, they sequester carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for decades, all while they create other social and environmental co-benefits. 

I reflected in my journal after our city walk: “Trees are continually undervalued. Decreased crime, decreased potholes, increased home value, helps asthma. Trees do so much more than just produce oxygen and reduce carbon.” As weird as it sounds, I have this newfound respect for trees, and I want to do what I can to protect them and continue to connect with our natural systems. 

~ River

Every branch of our study sprouted more questions. What about the aesthetic value of trees? Is building with wood a good way to sequester carbon? Do Burlington’s trees sequester as much carbon as the McNeil plant creates? We even began to wonder if the concept of ‘ecosystem benefits’ might be problematic. Does it feed into a managerial and technophilic worldview that contributes to the problems of biodiversity loss and climate change? Or can it actually help decision-makers to value trees in a real way? And how do ecological problems intersect with other social problems we’ve encountered, like racism and poverty?

People are also part of natural systems… As one source put it, “A lot of our modern environmental problems come from people not seeing themselves as a part of natural systems.” We eat the food that comes from natural systems, and we live off the land that runs on a natural system. If we continue to destroy natural systems we will eventually destroy ourselves.

~ Ethan


This piece is called “Unitree”. The tree is kind of lopsided and lopped off but it’s standing. The leaves are all different kinds. At the base of the tree, there is a protection ring inside of a fire. This piece is supposed to represent many things. For one, it’s speaking on the strength of unity… It’s not perfect but it’s functioning. The fire represents the ongoing divide of American life and the climate crisis. Additionally, it is a tree because trees are needed in the fight for climate action. I’m also playing with the question Is there room for individualism in the fight against climate change?. I pictured the leaves as different kinds because they represent the difference in American people. But do we all have to let go of some of that individualism for this effort to work?

~ Tess

After learning about red-lining and our three days with Zoe gaining very deep insight into the multitude of benefits trees bring, I understand what Ayana Johnson was talking about when she said racial justice and climate change go hand in hand and climate justice is the inseparable link that ties the two together…I have always looked at racism and climate change as massive separate problems that need to be solved for the good of all people but I now understand by solving one we are solving both. If the Burlington community decided to plant more trees in neighborhoods that are low-income and predominantly minorities, not only would temperature, air quality, health, crime, city systems, and overall happiness of residents improve but we would also be directly combating climate change with natural systems. Our world is under so much pressure from all sides of the globe but if we could potentially solve a multitude of problems at one time I think it’s more than worth a shot.

~ Oli
Trees also give us Jenga.

Thanks to Zoe for her leadership in protecting Burlington’s natural areas and for sharing her time and expertise with our group. Thanks also to our friends in the UVM Rubenstein Lab for the loan of the Biltmore sticks. And most of all, thanks to the trees and the ecosystems they live in!

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