How do you measure the worth of a tree? Do the math

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What's a tree worth?

The subject comes up because the city has just gone all Paul Bunyan on Market Square, hacking down every tree in yet another multimillion-dollar makeover of the Downtown gathering place. (Funny how they timed it so it's fenced off for the G-20 summit, taking away yet another possible place for protesters to gather. Good luck on exercising your constitutional right to peaceful assembly, citizens.)

While it's true this $5 million plan includes new landscaping and trees, right now, Market Square looks like a scenic crime. Tom Sullivan, who handles commercial real estate and is "no tree hugger," was surveying the hacktastic vista when I walked by late Tuesday afternoon and described it as "tragic."

"I can think of better ways to spend $5 million," Mr. Sullivan said.

So can Lisa Haabestad. She works with her husband, architect Rob Pfaffmann, in an eighth-floor office in the Benedum Trees Building that overlooks the Square.

"That's dreadful," she said as we looked down on the suddenly, strangely barren square below. "It used to be so green."

By her rough tally, the city chopped down 15 linden trees and 20 pear trees, worth a cumulative $128,315. She made that estimate based on the city's own Municipal Forest Resource Analysis from April 2008.

A lot of trees die each year to produce the paper that goes into municipal reports that few people read. I confess I hadn't before seen this one that inventoried the city's 29,641 street trees. The Davey Resource Group found 130 species, with Norway or red maples making up a quarter of our urban forest, and callery pears, littleleaf lindens and London plane trees (a sycamore hybrid) making up another third.

Not enough of Pittsburgh's street trees are young, and far too many are in sorry shape. Replacing them with trees of similar size, species and condition would cost $137 million, according to the report. The city doesn't have that kind of money, so we had better take care of what we have.

It's too late for the stumps of Market Square, but Ms. Haabestad and this report are on to something when they seek to quantify all these street trees do for us. Their shade reduces cooling costs, a savings the report valued at $12 million, better than 40 bucks per tree. They reduce carbon dioxide by more than 5,000 tons. They intercept more than 40 million gallons of stormwater each year, which is crucial considering the crumbling state of our saturated storm sewers.

Ms. Haabestad used simple division and the report's findings to deduce what the Market Street trees were worth, and it's not the first time she's done this. She and her husband live on Filbert Street in Shadyside. (You had to figure they'd be on a street named for a tree.) About four years ago, some school workers took a chain saw to a tall, healthy London plane tree at the corner of Ellsworth Avenue and Ivy Street outside the neighboring Liberty Elementary School. Evidently untrained, the saw men took too much of the crown and the tree has been withering since.

Ms. Haabestad doesn't figure it will last much longer, so she sent the Pittsburgh Public Schools an invoice suggesting a check be made payable to the citizens of Pittsburgh for $23,972, the estimated replacement cost. She also suggested the district hire a sustainability coordinator so such mistakes aren't repeated.

"It's so painful to see it gone, or on its way out," she said of the tree. "I'm already using the past tense."

I asked if she and Mr. Pfaffmann really thought trees were worth that much, and both gave emphatic yeses. It's no coincidence the city's most prosperous neighborhoods, such as Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, are leafy. Shadyside is lucky, he said, in that most of its "street trees" are actually yard trees that shade the sidewalk. Their owners provide the care that a strapped city can't.

The city shouldn't fumble what it does have, though. So this duo, calling itself the Pittsburgh Treerooters, is producing oversized price tags to highlight what our trees are worth. The first, marked "$23,972.00," went on that tree outside the Liberty School last Saturday. More tags will be going up in Mellon Park in a few weeks, they promise.

The poet Joyce Kilmer famously figured he'd "never see a poem as lovely as a tree." We'll never see a price tag as lovely, either. But if our leaders want to keep bragging about this "green city," a bit more care with the green we have, both in the wallets and on the branches, is a must.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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