June 9, 2023

Hug a Tree, Definitely

Guest Opinion
By Cathye Williams | April 29, 2023

During April, nature lovers across Michigan took part in many Earth and Arbor Day activities. There were film screenings, recycling drives, bird hikes, and beach clean-ups. For those who like to get their hands dirty, there were plenty of opportunities to plant trees—a cornerstone of Earth Day celebrations.

We place so much hope in these beloved trees, it’s no wonder the term “tree-hugger” emerged as a name for environmentalists. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the mildly derisive term conjured up images of hippies prancing in the woods, hugging trees and eating granola. It was condescending to be sure.

Today the term is still an insult, flung at anyone who believes we should preserve and protect nature. Today’s tree-huggers are people from all walks of life. They are dismissed as being part of the “woke mob” because they challenge those who exploit Earth’s resources and challenge the systemic imbalance of wealth and power that enables and exacerbates the exploitation.

You can call me a woke tree-hugger anytime. I will always be in awe of trees. Their power is immersed in a sprawling, complex story still unfolding…including a chapter where they solve climate change.

Decades ago, scientists delved under the forest floor and discovered a vast, delicate web of microscopic fungal filaments that colonize tree roots and reach into the surrounding soil. Dubbed the “wood wide web,” this fungi network is thought to aid the exchange of water, minerals, and nutrients in the soil for sugars and other carbon molecules in the tree.

Scientists are exploring whether this network can send signals, through chemical or electric impulses, to other trees in the forest to help them adapt and survive external threats. Researchers are studying many aspects of the web to learn how the exchanges work, which organisms benefit, and how the networks differ across the globe (The New York Times Nov. 2022). Understanding these processes and managing forests accordingly could help forests thrive and may also optimize their carbon storage capacity.

This storage process begins on the other end of the tree, high above the forest floor, where photosynthesis transforms energy from sunlight and CO2 from the atmosphere into fuel, building the trees’ structure and storing carbon in their biomass.

Why is this important? Climate science tells us that to slow global warming, we must both drastically cut carbon emissions and draw as much CO2 from the atmosphere as we can. Studies estimate the U.S. needs to increase carbon sequestration substantially and that most of the increase will come from trees, which currently account for 95 percent of U.S. carbon sequestration annually (Science May 2022).

This means we need to plant new forests and protect the forests we already have. We can do this by using climate-smart forest management, protecting forests from fires and invasive species, and restoring them quickly after a disaster. We can also sequester carbon by putting trees back on pasturelands that we cleared them from ages ago, a practice called silvopasture. Trees are incorporated into livestock management on these lands, providing shade for the animals and improving the soil and the plants that they graze on (USDA).

Wondrously, the durable wood products we take from the forest can store carbon for decades in buildings and other things we make from them. Using more wood and fewer carbon intensive materials like concrete and steel can reduce a structure’s footprint by a third (Journal of Building Engineering 2019). The Inflation Reduction Act provided $100 million for wood innovation grants to identify even more uses and markets for timber (Citizens Climate Lobby Policy Agenda).

Finally, planting trees in urban areas will stash more carbon and has many benefits for people in those communities. Shade from trees reduces energy use in hot weather. Trees improve air quality by removing pollutants. They also filter pollutants in groundwater, store rainwater, and prevent soil erosion. They support biodiversity.

Trees in urban areas reduce noise pollution, increase property values, and improve economic viability (ReLeaf Michigan). During heat waves, trees can reduce city temperatures by as much as 10 degrees. Urban greening also addresses tree equity—an environmental justice concern—by increasing the percentage of the tree canopy found in poor communities and communities of color. Currently, these neighborhoods lag behind their wealthier and majority white counterparts in tree coverage by 41 and 33 percent respectively.

What can tree-huggers do to help? Talk to your representatives about pending federal legislation like the FOREST Act, which will restrict the sale of goods from illegally deforested land, and the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which helps farmers and foresters benefit financially from using regenerative growing methods. Talk to local leaders and work with community groups to explore funding for tree planting.

Even if hugging isn’t your thing, try to spend some time with these giant wonders. They’re also good for your mental health!

Cathye Williams serves as volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse and Manistee chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. She writes from the northern corner of Manistee County.



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