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United Nations Launches International Year of Forests in 2011

As urban dwellers, we may not be aware of the importance of forests and how we all are affected by their presence as well as their loss. Each year, the United Nations highlights a theme to focus the world’s attention on a major issue and this year, 2011, has been declared International Year of Forests.

What benefits do we, as New Yorkers, derive from trees – such as the honey locusts that line 20th Street where I live, or the native trees of Stuyvesant Cove Park that provide food and habitat for wildlife, or the trees in your neighborhood?

The leaves of these trees take in the carbon dioxide that we breathe out and other carbon emissions from fossil-fueled vehicles and industry, and through the process of photosynthesis, they make food for themselves and release oxygen for us and all living creatures. Trees also absorb water through their extensive root systems, which help to prevent mudslides and riverbank erosion. The more water that street trees can absorb, the less rainwater goes into the storm drains reducing sewer overflow. Trees enhance property values with their beauty, especially in autumn when the chill produces a multicolored landscape, reason enough to celebrate them in poetry and song.

In developing countries like Kenya in Africa, many acres of forest have been lost at an exceptionally fast rate as a result of logging and charcoal burning. Workers of the Greenbelt Movement, formed by Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, joined local people and students to plant thousands of seedlings, replacing the lost trees of the Eburro forest, a major catchment area of Kenya.

In India, tribal women in the northern Uttar Pradesh State joined together by holding hands around the trees of their forest to prevent men from cutting the trees down to build a dwelling for the local Maharajah.

In Brazil, large tracts of the Amazon rain forest have been clear-cut and turned into farms. Because the soil there is not suitable for farming, its ability to sustain growth is quickly depleted and crops fail. In addition, the loss of the tree cover in Brazil contributes to global climate change. Deforestation threatens indigenous people, their cultures and livelihood, and threatens the extinction of numerous plants and animals, yet to be discovered, some of which may be sources of new medicines.

In Peru, a non-governmental organization known as Yachay Wasi (based in Cuzco and New York City), is a partner to the UN Development Program’s Billion Trees Campaign, In January and February 2009, indigenous descendants of the Incas planted 6,000 native trees during the rainy season. In January 2010, an additional 6,350 native tree saplings were planted at a cost of $1 each. This effort to restore an ecosystem continues in 2011, providing jobs in impoverished communities, a key component of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in overcoming poverty.

Our own Mayor Michael Bloomberg produced PlaNYC in 2007, outlining a program to make New York City an example of sustainable development, setting a goal of planting One Million Trees. In November 2010, the Mayor was elected Chair at the C 40 Climate Leadership Summit in Hong Kong for the next two years. In his acceptance speech, the Mayor challenged the heads of 40 large cities to lead the world in addressing climate change and building a sustainable future.

Groups like Trees New York, the New York City Parks Department and the New York Restoration Project invite volunteers and donors to help support our urban forests. Trees New York trains and licenses Citizen Pruners to care for street trees by offering a course and hands-on learning (212-227-1887). Citizens can notify their local community board if they notice missing, damaged or diseased trees. Individuals and store owners can help trees survive in hot summers by watering them, providing fencing to discourage dogs from relieving themselves in the tree pit and to prevent bikes from being secured to trees thus causing injury to the bark.

Trees also cool off streets, contributing further to a thriving environment by lessening the need for air conditioning and fans in spring and summer months. This is an aid to the economy, as well. According to Million Trees NYC, "Our street trees provide $27 million a year in energy savings." Their studies suggest: "Trees provide $5.60 in benefits for every dollar spent on tree planting and care."

Volunteer opportunities are available to all New Yorkers. On the web site,, one can request a street tree, add to the collective tree count after planting a tree of his or her own purchase, volunteer to aid in the planting and upkeep of trees and make tax-deductible donations. Training and educational workshops, events, outings and free tree giveaways also encourage planting. So far the program is on track, with 315,979 trees planted. Let’s do our part to give back to trees what they have given to us in 2011, Year of Forests.