"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair
It has been expressed to me when trying to address environmental or urban forest issues with the general public and government officials, one of the many frustrations for ecologists in Dallas is this unyielding annoyance of being from completely different places in thought with much of the audience - especially with the decision-makers. Although most of the citizenry will understand the basic premise of why we need trees, or clean water, or open spaces, or wildlife, or air, many of these same people will lose interest the moment you lose their undivided attention. For some, this comes with stating the word 'tree'. For some, these topics are best left to nature programs on PBS or the Lorax. Many others who stay with the discussion and who are more active will become distant in thought soon after, returning to their daily demands on their time or when they start missing their iPhone. The land ethic, espoused by Aldo Leopold in the early 20th century, has at least made a dent into our thoughts. The word is out to save our forests and trees in order to save our communities. I think it's fair to say it has not gone far enough. The land ethic must affect not only what we do but why we do it. If in the end, the game has not changed, then all the talking in the world of so-called sustainability is to no profit. It's talk. If we enjoy a moment of celebration of trees and then turn around the next moment and eradicate a forest elsewhere, what have you gained?
Back in the late 20th century, the environmental movement had made tremendous strides for change in the Dallas business-as-usual construct. Ordinances were created to establish landscaping and land conservation efforts. The ecologists in the crowd were respected - and feared. Over time, the influence of these groups diminished and had become fragmented. The energy for a 'green Dallas' shifted to what you built, not how you built, on the land. Buildings and growth are what people understand. So it's not hard to see how the green building and smart growth activists took over the green movement. Buildings are confined and manufactured. You can calculate spaces and dollars per square foot and spreadsheets to calculate energy reductions. Now, conservation is a good thing in whatever form it takes. But somewhere in the dust, the forest conservation effort became quiet and timid. The growth business doesn't understand the living. It's about fixed places, allowable building areas, parking lot ratios, and calculating dollars per square feet. The organic infrastructure and demands of tree roots is hard to calculate to the uninitiated.
However, the flame is still lit.
We're entering into our new tree planting season in Dallas on November 2. What happens when the tree planting ends? We tend to find the people most passionate about protecting trees, and being good stewards of our urban forest, will remain dedicated and stay committed to fighting the good fight. They're out clearing invasive plants, or opening trails, or laboring in the community garden. They're conducting plant inventories or fighting to protect sensitive land areas. They are reconnecting - or teaching others to reconnect. They are unlearning years of dangerous habitual paths our culture has taught us and re-learning what it is to be a citizen of a living planet. No, it is not a socialist conspiracy for liberal hippies. If anything, it's also a most conservative act to conserve land. The great thing about reconnecting with our land is that it is not a political ideology that moves people. It is people merely recognizing who they are beyond petty human arguments. The earth doesn't take sides. We're all enemies of a very tolerant planet.
But our numbers are still disturbingly small. These so-called 'treehuggers' (I hate that term by the way because it's used as a form of passive ridicule by the establishment) grow in numbers with generational changes as people are reconnecting their minds, hands, and experiences back to the earth. But the progress is achingly slow as the expansionists ultimately prevail on decisions for the future and the continual and eternal growth until there is no land remaining. The dedicated land stewards know they are fighting the good fight for themselves, but also for all others. The struggle to stop the bleeding takes on a broader effort.
Managing an urban forest infrastructure is a complex task because you're not only dealing with thousands of separate property owners, but you must address forest regeneration issues, tree removal, tree die-off, tree maintenance, tree planting, irrigation, parkland protection, renegade land clearing and illegal land uses, utility maintenance, forest and ordinance education, homeowner and tree interaction, hazard assessments, public utility and street infrastructure repair, poor tree maintenance practices, pests and insects, invasive plants, forest fragmentation, heat islands, and on and on. Unfortunately, cities tend to confine these forest issues to something that will take care of themselves. This is only a recipe for ultimate failure.
Unfortunately, the business community is not in the business of understanding trees and forests. They're in the business of understanding money. But if they can understand Sun Tzu's The Art of War, then why not Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac?
For the most part, speaking about urban forest issues in a government or professional development office, or even at the lunch table, will often just turn the room cold. Though it is not always the case, people will quickly try to change the subject to more 'relevant' issues. For many in these conversations, the forest (and all that is within it) is an obstruction to economic and development growth and the cost of its removal is merely a financial or logistical burden to them. Little to no thought it given to the dislocated wildlife or to the long-term impacts to the community through environmental assessments. Texas is a property rights state where the principle is the owner owning the property is right and to hell with anything else. Only a municipal zoning ordinance and building codes curtail the free-for-all. If they can show the math and the engineering capability, the whim of an individual can 'moonscape' a plot in less than a week. For the owner, it is, at the least, an inconvenience. At the worst, it is something that must be countered with great financial burdens due to government regulation. Fortunately, and to their credit, there are a growing number of these owners and developers who are looking beyond the short-term and realizing the needs of the community. These developers are the people I will cheer for when the money and the philosophy come together.
The business of Man has no room for the 'childish endeavors' of saving the world or Bambi. The forest and wildlife on the land has no financial value or merit to the business partnership, the 'LLC', or individual to bring to the table, at least in their pure statistical business assessments. Therefore, these are items to be targeted. The financial reimbursement of tree removal to the community by a persistent tree ordinance is merely a cost of doing development. It is a business transaction, no more - no less. The purpose of a protection ordinance is long forgotten. For me, it is the most vital section. If you know why you're preserving something, perhaps you'll be more inclined to find ways to make it happen in a sustainable fashion. Unfortunately, the business community is not in the business of understanding trees and forests. They're in the business of understanding money. But if they can understand Sun Tzu's The Art of War, then why not Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac?
This world of economizing trees will not end with scores of people taking to the streets to plant trees. It will not be remedied with bike rides through the Great Trinity Forest. We can only restore energy to forest conservation when we begin to change minds. This begins with understanding, and standing on, a land ethic. I believe it is a moral principle the urban citizens are able to engage. But are they willing? It challenges what they know and the conveniences someone is not so ready to dismiss. It requires a change of how we do business and how grow a community. Many are now engaged. The problem now becomes recognizing the needs of management, and building the perspective of each of us being tree stewards.
In the many decades since the death of Aldo Leopold, I sometimes feel we are as far afield from the ability of the land ethic to direct us as we have ever been. This is my frustration. I have seen very little in a movement to preserve our mature trees when they can be preserved. Perhaps there is a desire, but not the muscle and mechanics to make it happen. An ordinance can only provide the legal structure for preserving trees. As with any law, it requires the commitment of the society to make it a living ordinance by our noble and right action. Unless our minds are transformed, all we can do is successfully plant our new trees and hope that future generations will do better than us with what we plant today.
“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” - Aldo Leopold