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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: Achieving a goal of 100,000 new trees

by Richard Mason | January 23, 2022 at 2:05 a.m.

With Arkansas running a huge budget surplus, a few dollars to plant trees would be easy to come up with. That is why I intend to push the Legislature to enact a statewide grant program to plant 100,000 trees in our towns and cities. I hope to have numerous sponsors of the bill by the time the Legislature meets.

I have been active in planting downtown trees in El Dorado for at least 25 years. Starting with almost nothing, our downtown has a decent tree canopy. Many other downtowns in the state have only a smattering of trees, but even just a few can make a difference. Downtowns with trees have a much better ambiance than yesterday's bare downtowns.

Over several years I have followed press releases from cities around the country which have instigated tree-planting programs. Among these initiatives is a one million tree-planting program joined by cities around the world including Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, New York City, London, and Shanghai.

One of the most successful of those programs is Chicago, which joined early. Over the years Vertis and I have visited Chicago on vacations; our last visit was just before the virus hit. We couldn't believe the difference from previous trips. Chicago's downtown ls amazing. It has reached its goal by planting one million trees. The program was so successful and so well received that if a resident wants a tree in a front yard facing the street, the city will come and plant it at no cost.

Recently, the city announced it will plant an additional 75,000 trees over the next five years. Central to Chicago's new approach will be placing trees where they are most needed for health and equity outcomes.

A tree-planting program would be well received in Arkansas; what could better express the Natural State? Considering our population, a more modest program should be considered; 100,000 trees planted in towns and cities over five years seems achievable.

If we consider the advantages of increasing the tree canopy in our state's cities, it is obviously money well spent. A tree canopy can have a direct impact on air quality, temperature, flooding, and public health. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the net cooling effect of a healthy young tree is equivalent to 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.

Trees also can be a stimulus to economic development, attracting new businesses and tourism. Commercial retail areas are more attractive to shoppers, apartments rent more quickly, tenants stay longer, and space in a wooded setting is more valuable to sell or rent, according to studies and surveys made by the Arbor Day Foundation.

Other national studies show that trees and landscape plantings can increase property values by 4-5 percent. Real estate assessors recognize that a house on a lot with trees or in a neighborhood with mature trees is up to 20 percent more marketable. Trees in urban business districts lead to higher retail sales by changing consumers' patterns--shoppers are willing to spend more and are more likely to shop longer in tree-lined areas.

In El Dorado, the first significant tree planting occurred as part of an attempt to revive a significant downturn of business by creating a downtown limited-access shopping area. A smattering of live oak trees were planted--a poor selection. There are probably less than 15 remaining.

In the mid-1970s, after the enclosed shopping area around the courthouse was removed, I initiated tree planting with a coordinated effort from the City of El Dorado to cut sidewalk planting squares using money from a business district parking lot and matching funds from the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

The effort resulted in the planting of over 1,000 trees during the next 25 years. However, after a master landscaping plan was prepared, it was obvious less than half the available downtown spots were planted.

Even though our planting is only partially complete, winning the Great American Main Street Award in 2009 resulted in a very favorable comment to this initial phase.

I go to Houston every February to a trade show held in the George Brown Convention Center and stay in a hotel a couple of blocks way. When I first began to attend the trade show, the broad sidewalk that diagonally crossed an entire city block was lightly landscaped. About five years ago the city lined the sidewalk on both sides with large live oaks.

I was shocked, and asked how the city did it. I was told that the cost would be $30,000 for trees of that size. In order to plant as many trees as possible, we would limit their size to 6-foot to 8-foot saplings. Based on the cost of the trees and the difficulty involved in planting, $250 per tree would be a good estimate, since most would be on sidewalks; a three-foot square would need to be cut and soil prepared to plant each tree.

If the city would cut the sidewalk and break out the concrete, more trees could be planted, and if local or statewide foundations or individuals contribute to the program, it would greatly cut the cost.

I'm going to use a $25 million estimate as a starting point. With the state running a $500 million yearly surplus the funds are there, and since the value of a tree over its life is estimated to be $25,000, the addition of 100,000 new trees would pay for itself in terms of benefits to the state--and that doesn't include their ambiance.

The cost would be spread over five years, which would require a $5 million budgeted amount for each year. The Arkansas Forestry Commission would supervise the distribution of funds and approve the selection of trees.

I need help with the sponsorship and drafting of the bill. To state legislators willing to draft a bill or sponsor this legislation: Please contact me.

Email Richard Mason at

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