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Calculating the True Benefits of Trees

How much is a 400-year old live oak tree worth?  Can you buy one online, with free shipping, and charge it to the credit card?  Pick one up at the local home improvement store?  Ask Santa? Of course not.  When admiring a tree that size, we have an innate sense of its value, but we would often have a hard time expressing it in dollars.  How about a cluster of trees in a wooded lot?  Are they worth more than the dollar store being built there? We are conditioned to appreciate the value of things because there’s a price tag on them.  Unfortunately, natural phenomena do not have price tags, and many things that are “free” are often perceived to have no real value.

Planting a tree is an excellent way to insure clean air and water in the future.  Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Planting a tree is an excellent way to insure clean air and water in the future. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Trees, however, have value far beyond the price one might pay at a plant nursery.  Their roots absorb polluted storm-water runoff, the primary cause of decreased water quality in Florida.  Their leaves take in carbon dioxide and release the very oxygen we breathe.  Providing homes for wildlife, fruit and nuts for human and animal consumption, compounds that form the basis of countless medications—trees provide innumerable benefits to ecosystems both local and worldwide.  If a local government were to construct a facility or method that could filter the air and water at the same efficiency and volume of the trees in ones county, it would cost the community millions.

This street tree in Chicago was given a price tag to raise awareness of its value. Photo credit: Eric Stevenson

This street tree in Chicago was given a price tag to raise awareness of its value. Photo credit: Eric Stevenson

But how is is possible to capture these benefits in a way that we can relate to?  Luckily, a partnership between arborists, engineers, and researchers with private industry, the US Forest Service, and the USDA has resulted in an excellent online tool called the National Tree Benefits calculator. Based on software called “i-Tree,” the calculator allows anyone to enter their zip code, choose from a list of common tree species, and using the diameter of a single tree, calculate its economic value.  For example, a 15-inch live oak tree at the Escambia Extension office provides an annual benefit of $79 every year, increasing in value as it grows in girth and height.  The website delves deeper into the tree’s value, placing storm-water uptake value at $23.77, electricity savings at $15.23, and the capability to remove 607 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Extension Agents are currently working with youth in Escambia County to calculate these values for trees on their school campuses, local parks, and yards.  When we’re finished, we will hang actual price tags on the trees showing their annual economic value to showcase these facts to residents of the community.

Interested in what kind of economic benefit that magnolia in the front yard is giving you?  Check it out yourself at www.treebenefits.com, and let your neighbors know how valuable those trees can really be.

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