The cost of cutting down 29 oak trees in East River Park—just a few of the approximately 600 trees destroyed one year ago by New York City
In Nature’s Best Hope, Douglas Tallamy writes, “Ecologically, oaks are superior plants, and it would be easy to make a convincing case that they deliver more ecosystem services than any other tree genus.” Mature oaks can sequester (meaning absorb and store) immense amounts of carbon dioxide for hundreds of years, if they are allowed to live.
However, in East River Park, hundreds of pin oaks that had made the park their home for more than 80 years were not allowed to live. One year ago this month, the city began to cut hundreds of trees in East River Park, including these majestic oaks in the name of the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan that sacrifices nature—and human and ecological wellbeing—to protect against one single effect of climate change, flooding.
If the pin oaks had been allowed to live as part of a more integrated, multifaceted climate resiliency plan—one that worked with nature to mitigate not only the effects, but the causes of climate change for truly sustainable flood protection—what would their annual “ecosystem services” have been?
The recently released New York City Tree Map (https://tree-map.nycgovparks.org) includes data for all the trees in East River Park, including the ghosts of the hundreds cut down and mulched last December. This data includes trunk diameters; gallons of stormwater intercepted each year; hours of kilowatts conserved each year; pounds of air pollutants removed each year; and tons of carbon dioxide reduced each year. These benefits are converted into dollar amounts per “service” with a “Total Value of Annual Benefits,” calculated using formulas from the U.S. Forest Service.
So what was the value of the tree I loved most in the park, a large pin oak that stood somewhat solitary at the south end of East River Park? This tree, ID number 5113394, had a trunk diameter of 37 inches at the time it was surveyed (somewhere between 2015-2018). Its annual ecological benefits were calculated as follows:
- Stormwater intercepted each year: 7,122 gallons with a value of $70.51
- Energy conserved each year: 2,537 kWh with a value of $320.3
- Air pollutants removed each year: 6 pounds with a value of $31.05
- Carbon dioxide reduced each year: 17,746 tons with a value of $59.27
The total value of the ecological benefits that this tree provided to New York City each year was estimated to be $481.13.
This value does not include many unmeasured and unmeasurable data, ranging from number of birds who sheltered in this tree (including migrating warblers, northern flickers, a resident red-tailed hawk and one remarkably gorgeous scarlet tanager one beautiful spring day); number of insects and spiders living in its bark; temperature of sun reduced by its large shady canopy during hot summer days; number of park users resting against its trunk to relax or read or chat with friends; number of minds, bodies and souls enriched and recuperated thanks to its beauty; and so on.
This particular tree was cut down December 27, 2021, and its root ball extracted on February 8, 2022.
That is the data of one pin oak in East River Park. What is the scale of loss of environmental services when the data is multiplied by a fuller number of trees killed (or as some journalists preferred to call it at the time, “sacrificed”) for ESCR?
To get a larger idea, I calculated, approximately*, the data from a larger group of trees: 29 pin oaks that stood on the south edge of the now-demolished amphitheater. (This number does not include the pin oaks around the now-gone Compost Yard, a handful of which survive, nor does it include the pin oaks on the amphitheater’s northwest edge, a noted spot for migrating warblers and one that stood well above the flood plain).
The pin oaks I looked at were valued between $481.13 to $38.75 per year; the latter was a younger, smaller tree, whose annual reduction of carbon dioxide was 78 tons compared to the 17,746 tons of carbon dioxide removed by a nearby older, larger tree.
This young tree also did not remove any pounds of air pollutants annually, compared to 6 pounds of air pollutants removed by the older tree. Somewhat horrifyingly, this comparison between younger pin oak versus older pin oak gives us an idea of how the hundreds of saplings (tree species unknown or unreleased to the public) planned as replacements in the new flood wall/park –will compare in carbon dioxide and air pollution reduction to the mature trees that still existed last November. In fact, across all ecological benefits, the younger tree (at 4 inches diameter) contributed far less.
Here is an idea of the annual ecological benefits and total dollar value that was lost by killing 29 pin oaks (and not counting the other species of trees in the same area):
- Stormwater: 100,230 gallons
- Energy conserved each year: 48,560 kWh
- Air pollutants removed each year: 102 pounds
- Carbon dioxide reduced each year: 162,238 tons
- Total value: $8178.71
I have little doubt that the ecological services, particularly the reduction of carbon dioxide, are vastly undervalued. For instance, in the case of tree number 5113394, how can reducing 17,746 tons of carbon dioxide each year be worth only $59.27?
But even so, these are breathtaking numbers, even what is a relatively a small portion of trees cut. What would these numbers look like if we looked at all of the pin oaks that have been cut in the south end of the park, ranging up to the chain-link fence delineating “Project Area 1” near Houston St.? What would they look like if we added the services lost by all of the other tree species cut, including American Elms, Bald Cypress, Eastern Redbuds, Sweetbay Magnolias and so many more. What would they look like if we included shrubs, bushes, flowers, grass and soil removed, as well?
However, there are still 505 trees in the north end that could, with some civic intelligence, accountability and vision, be saved.
These trees include a large pin oak at the south end of the track that runners, including Eileen Myles, who first pointed out this tree to me, use to stretch their legs, to rest beneath, or simply to breathe easier under its shade. This tree, ID 5102528, intercepts 5,492 gallons of stormwater each year. It conserves 2,247 kWh each year. It is 32 inches in diameter—at least, the last time it was measured some years ago. It removes 5 pounds of air pollution each year. And it reduces 11,659 tons—tons!—of carbon each year. It lives. It still lives. Let’s save it and never take urban trees for granted again.
Marcella Durand is a poet and the author of To husband is to tender and The Prospect, among other books. She grew up in Lower Manhattan and has lived with her family in the Lower East Side and the East Village for close to 30 years.
* All figures are approximate as I am not a mathematician, but “merely” a citizen of New York City, someone who grew up in Lower Manhattan, doing the ecological calculations that the administration and elected officials New York City should have done with a proper and updated EIS of ESCR. I added up the numbers by hand and encourage any statisticians reading this post to please continue this work further for full accuracy.
For more on why the mature trees and their carbon sequestration are important, see this excellent article:
“We Can’t Plant Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis” by Robert Leverett. He also explains how calculations are made to determine how much carbon is stored. And he calculates the answer to his own question: “How many trees must be planted and how long must they grow to match the carbon volume stored in one big tree?” The answers show that the promised 1,800 saplings for the East River Park to be built on top of the levee in a few years will be pathetically inadequate to replace the loss of the 1,000 mature trees destroyed by the East Side Coastal “Resiliency” project.
And this article shows why it matters to the health of our neighborhood:
Daycares in Finland Built a ‘Forest’, And It Changed Kids’ Immune Systems by Carly Cassella in Health, Dec. 13, 2022.
“The notion that an environment rich in living things impacts on our immunity is known as the ‘biodiversity hypothesis’. Based on that hypothesis, a loss of biodiversity in urban areas could be at least partially responsible for the recent rise in immune-related illnesses.”