Atlanta's declining tree canopy poses danger

Atlanta's declining tree canopy poses danger

The "city in a forest" is steadily losing its crown.

Atlanta lost 308 square miles of tree canopy between 1992 and 2001, and the loss continued through 2005, with Clayton and Paulding counties leading the way with 5 percent declines during that 4-year period, according to two University of Georgia studies.

The loss equals more than 1,000 Piedmont Parks or 42 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airports. And the decline continues, says Cheryl Kortemeier, director of development and communications for Trees Atlanta, the city's largest nonprofit dedicated to preserving urban forest.

"People fly into Atlanta and they see all the trees, but trees are declining every day," she says.

Crowding out trees

The area's unprecedented population growth is blamed in part for the trend. The Atlanta metropolitan area had the most growth from 2000 to 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, adding 900,000 residents to boost its population to 5.1 million.

Studies indicate that for every 2 acres of impervious surface added, 1 acre of canopy is lost, either due to loss of trees or replacement of older trees with new ones that have smaller canopies.

The value of trees goes beyond aesthetics. Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate 100 trees remove 53 tons of carbon dioxide and catch about 139,000 gallons of rainwater a year.

Trees Atlanta is hosting its 11th annual tree sale in October. Each tree for sale is native to the region and volunteers will be on hand to offer buying advice.

Getting good advice is key to tree success, says Doug Dorough, owner of three-time Super Service Award winner Dorough Landscape Co. in Lilburn. He says beyond choosing trees appropriate for the Atlanta climate, the most important thing to do is choose the right tree for the right spot.

That means knowing the mature size of the tree: height, root structure, girth and canopy, he says.

Choose carefully

A bad choice may take decades to manifest itself. "You can spend a lot of years nurturing and watering and feeding a tree, and when it's just starting to get some size and shape, it starts to decline and you have to cut it down and start all over again," Dorough says.

Kortemeier says she'd like to see Atlanta developers and homeowners incorporate trees more thoughtfully into the landscape. "A tree that has room to grow and is healthy is able to provide the most benefit to the property owner and the surrounding community," she says.

Angie's List member Leor Amikam moved to his Johns Creek neighborhood, northeast of Atlanta, in large part because the developer kept many of the large native hardwood trees.

"You feel like you are somewhat secluded in a forest," Amikam says. "Here, all the new subdivisions just go in and chop everything down and plant a stick in your front yard.

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