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Peter’s Take: Environmental Policy Implementation Should Be Based on the Best Data

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Our experiences with COVID-19 and flash flooding have taught us that all Arlington policies should be implemented based on the best data. This is certainly true for Arlington’s environmental policies.

An excellent demonstration of how to implement environmental policy based on the best data appears in a March 2021 presentation delivered to the Arlington County Civic Federation (Civ Fed) by Karen Firehock, Executive Director of Richmond’s Green Infrastructure Center (GIC).

Mature tree canopy

Firehock stressed (Slide 8) the critical importance of every locality’s mature tree canopy:

  • Trees give us cleaner air, shade, beauty and stormwater benefits at a far cheaper cost than engineered systems
  • A typical street tree can intercept anywhere from 760 gallons to 4,000 gallons per tree, depending on the species

In addition, Firehock reviewed (Slides 12-16) the beneficial effects of mature trees in combatting the serious health risks posed by urban heat islands, and discussed (Slide 15) how mature trees could alleviate these risks in Arlington.

Firehock also explained (Slides 18-30) how to use the best scientific data, including GIC’s stormwater calculator (Slides 27-28), to deploy mature trees and other green techniques to slow or reverse the devastating flooding impacts of overdevelopment and climate change.

Civic Federation resolution

Based on Ms. Firehock’s presentation, Civ Fed adopted a resolution requesting “immediate action by the County to prepare an updated, comprehensive tree canopy and natural resources study that provides detailed information on relevant land cover categories.”

Among the resolution’s key points:

  • Arlington County’s data on our existing tree canopy are obsolete
  • The county also lacks analytical capabilities that comparable neighboring jurisdictions possess
  • The analytical capabilities Arlington lacks are nationally recognized as requirements for effective planning for green and stormwater infrastructure
  • Arlington County should prepare an updated, comprehensive tree canopy and natural resources study
  • The updated study should be used as a resource for future stormwater planning and other county programs and can be completed in two to three months at a low cost

Strong commission support

Arlington’s Forestry and Natural Resources Commission (FNRC) strongly supports the strategic importance of performing a new Arlington mature tree canopy study.

In a June 2021 letter to the County Board, the FNRC persuasively explained why a new tree canopy survey is necessary to implement new policies to redress social inequities. Historically disadvantaged communities tend to be those with fewer trees and green spaces — and thus fewer benefits (lowered air pollution, improved health).

FNRC underscored the need to pinpoint those areas of the county with the greatest tree deficits, along with those with the greatest tree losses, in order to improve the county’s natural environment for all. Some neighborhoods have seen their tree canopy coverage drop by double-digit percentages — up to 20%.

FNRC stressed the urgency of measuring precisely the current extent of Arlington’s urban forest, pinpointing those areas and neighborhoods that are suffering from a lack of trees or from accelerating losses.

Conclusion

We should insist that our county government apply the principles of Inventory Accuracy 101. Without an accurate tree canopy inventory, we cannot hold the county government accountable for critically important environmental decisions.

As a recent essay about Nashville, Tennesse put it: “we need trees, and trees need us.” Nashville has recognized trees as part of its “civic infrastructure.”

We can and should base final environmental policy implementation on the results of a new mature tree canopy survey so we accurately can answer such questions as:

  • What percentage of Arlington’s existing tree canopy is on public land (especially parks and schools) where the county has maximum flexibility to act immediately?
  • Where exactly have we lost mature trees on private land due to development?
  • Given the current rate of tree canopy loss due to development on private land, and the current minimal requirements for replanting, what will Arlington’s mature tree canopy look like in 20 years with and without the implementation of major policy changes?
  • If mature tree canopy losses on private land demonstrate severe impacts, for what specific remedies should the county advocate at the state level?
  • What will the larger Arlington impacts be in 5, 10 years for air quality, heat islands, climate change and human health?

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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