Editorial: The suburbs have a tree problem. Here's what we need to do to fix it.
The region outside Chicago's limits is often called "the tree-lined suburbs." So it may surprise you to learn that the suburbs have a tree problem. Much of the suburban area is indeed lined with trees, but many parts are not. And the total tree and shrub coverage is falling short of what's needed for our and the planet's health.
The Morton Arboretum raised the issue again last month with an announcement -- coming a couple of weeks ago to celebrate Earth Day, Arbor Day and its own 100th anniversary -- that it will plant 3,000 trees over three seasons throughout suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties. It will start with 520 trees this spring, including in Prospect Heights and Carpentersville, and continue this fall as well as the spring of 2023.
"The goal is to try to get municipalities to about 40% canopy cover, because that's where we start to see some of the climate benefits really come into play," said Lydia Scott, director of The Chicago Region Trees Initiative, an arboretum-founded partnership that's managing the planting efforts.
The suburban region has 26% canopy coverage, according to a 2020 tree census conducted by the arboretum. That's clearly missing the mark, but the real problem is inconsistent tree coverage.
The Chicago Region Trees Initiative website has an excellent map detailing that coverage. One section of Prospect Heights has 32% coverage, but another has 16%. The core Northwest suburbs largely have excellent coverage, but a large portion of Wheeling has only 9%, and a sizable portion of Palatine has only 19%. In DuPage, one section of Bloomingdale has 37% coverage, another has only 12%. Much of Carol Stream is suffering, and even a section of Glen Ellyn shows only 20%. Lake County and the Fox Valley do not escape the problem.
The inconsistencies have many causes: development, invaders like the emerald ash borer and Japanese beetles, decisions to cut down many trees rather than try to save them, invasive trees and plants that were not controlled.
We're happy to quote the website: "Trees clean our air and water, reduce flooding, save energy, improve property values, provide habitat for wildlife, and contribute significant social and health benefits to people." So we're also happy to see Morton Arboretum's latest tree-planting effort, as well as several others throughout the suburbs joining the overall initiative.
We're also happy to see all the related efforts, like those by volunteers to clear buckthorn, which Morton and the Trees Initiative identify as an invasive species that covers forest beds and steals sunlight and nutrients from trees. And all those controlled burns help our forests, too.
Who knew the suburbs would need help with trees? The Morton Arboretum and so many other ecologists are showing it's not so simple. We salute them, forest workers and volunteers for doing their part to improve our climate.