Do you know what a tree’s favorite radio station is? Whatever plays the poplar hits. Do you also know that trees don’t like riddles, because they’re afraid of being stumped?
We enjoy giving trees human traits, like the apple-throwing trees in "The Wizard of Oz" and the marching trees in "The Lord of the Rings." Children’s books have been written about trees, including “The Wise Old Oak Tree,” and trees are generally viewed with a great deal of respect.
Nowhere are trees given more respect than when they are casting cooling shade on a hot August day, or minimizing blizzard-force winds in January. Can a value be placed on a tree’s benefits? If a yard tree is struck by lightning or hit by a car, what is its monetary value?
In a recent article, North Dakota State University Extension Forester Joe Zeleznik discussed a tree’s worth. As he mentioned, in traditional forestry, trees are often viewed by how much lumber can be harvested from the trunks. How many two-by-fours can be sawed from a ponderosa pine that's 80 feet tall and 28 inches in diameter? The techniques for these calculations are well-developed and provide a dollar value based on lumber produced.
Most of us, though, aren’t going to sell our backyard trees for lumber. As Zeleznik points out, trees also provide shade, wind protection, pollution abatement and water control. They produce oxygen, provide wildlife habitat and improve people’s mental health.
Trees absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and absorb dust in the air. Farm windbreaks provide shelter for livestock and protect rural homes on windswept prairies.
Windbreaks, in the right locations, can serve as living snow fences. These plantings protect interstates and state highways in many areas of North Dakota. Living snow fences reduce drifting on roadways, increasing safety and reducing the need to plow out those areas following big snowstorms. How much is that worth? Zeleznik reports that the North Dakota Department of Transportation can plow snow for dollars per ton, or they can keep it off the roadways for pennies per ton by using trees as living snow fences.
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Zeleznik reports data from the U.S. Forest Service indicating that an individual tree, in the right location, can lower summer air conditioning costs by up to 30%. That’s the equivalent of 10 room-size air conditioners running 20 hours a day! Windbreaks can lower winter heating costs on a farmstead by as much as 40%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And those savings accumulate year after year, and even increase as the trees get larger.
One study by the U.S. Forest Service showed that Bismarck's municipal trees — those managed by the city — provide nearly $500,000 each year in stormwater reduction. And that’s just the public trees — it doesn’t include the services provided by trees on private property. For every dollar that Bismarck spends on its urban forestry program, the city reaps more than $3 in benefits.
Can we place a dollar value on an individual tree? That’s sometimes necessary if a tree is damaged in a vehicle accident or vandalism, or if legal disputes arise. Arborists certified through the International Society of Arboriculture are specially trained as tree valuation assessors. To determine a tree’s dollar value, they use a formula incorporating the tree’s height, trunk diameter, species, condition and location.
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Obviously, a single tree featured in a home yard has a higher dollar value than a tree in the middle of a forest. Trees rated by the assessor as having perfect form and in peak health are more valuable than diseased, poorly shaped specimens. Well-cared-for trees are more valuable than trees with obvious signs of neglect, lawn mower injury and insect damage. Because informed judgment calls are required in the rating formula, the process requires trained expertise beyond simple measurement-taking.
Just as insurance providers recommend keeping photos and records of other household valuables, they also suggest periodically making a photographic record of trees and other landscape plants, in case the need for valuation arises. Attempting to assess value can be difficult, or less accurate, after damage happens.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.