Indianapolis' urban forests worth $258 million. But they are disappearing to development.
Indianapolis’ trees are worth a lot of money — nearly $258 million a year, according to a recent report. That’s not the price they would fetch for lumber if they were cut down, however.
Quite the opposite, in fact: That’s the value of leaving the trees standing.
The report identified more than 4,300 forested areas, defined as one acre or more of trees, across Marion County. Those pockets of green provide tremendous, yet often overlooked, benefits to residents. They help control flooding, improve air and water quality, increase property values and enhance quality of life.
But the city’s urban forests are dwindling rapidly — being erased from the map and neighborhoods by encroaching development. And every tree cut down or pushed over by a bulldozer chips away at those important benefits.
The challenge in slowing or perhaps reversing that trend, however, is that the vast majority of Indianapolis forested areas are privately owned.
Only nine of the 59 square miles of forested areas identified in Marion County are within the public parks system. That means roughly 85% of urban forests are essentially unprotected, according to the Forests for Indy report from the Indiana Forest Alliance.
“We have ecological jewels all across the city that are being treated as dumps,” said Jeff Stant, executive director of the Forest Alliance and one of the main authors on the report. “What’s happening is one-by-one they are being put on the chopping block and developed.”
Indianapolis already trails other cities when it comes to public green space. Less than 5% of the total land within the county is park space, compared to the national median of 15%. And only a third of residents live within a 10-minute walk from a park. The average is more than half in other cities.
The city’s own sustainability plans recognizes the benefits of trees and set goals for increasing green space and tree cover.
But environmental advocates say those efforts are thwarted when existing trees are cut down, particularly because older, established trees do the most good. And while there is a broad consensus on the importance of preserving trees, they say there's a disconnect when it comes to public policy and investment in programs necessary to save valuable wooded areas.
The city said it's hands are tied in what it can do and the influence it can have on private property. That's where the report comes in, Stant said.
The Forest Alliance leader said his group produced the report in an effort to make everyone better understand the county’s forested areas, including their benefits and the challenges they face. Compiled over the course of several years, the final product is a first for Indianapolis: It inventories all the urban forests, puts a monetary number to the value they provide and ranks the forests based on their overall public benefit.
The hope is that by providing this unprecedented perspective on the city’s green spaces, a strategy to protect them may finally emerge along with the necessary funding.
Millions of dollars at stake
An urban forest is defined as a group of trees with continuous canopy that is greater than one acre. Of the unprotected forests throughout Indianapolis, roughly 3,500 of them are less than 10 acres while nearly 700 are larger than that. Some of the most forested areas surround Eagle Creek and Fort Harrison parks or hug the White River.
All told, the millions of trees that make up these forests provide $258 million in services annually, according to the report. That figure is based on the same calculation the city has used to determine the value the benefits of trees in rights-of-way.
Those "services" range from helping control stormwater and flooding, improving water and air quality, moderating heat, reducing carbon, increasing property values, beautifying neighborhoods and boosting mental and physical health — all benefits that are supported by research.
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Valuing the trees in this way has never been at the local level in Marion County, said Clarke Kahlo, a former city planner. That’s why he calls this report a gift.
“We are talking about our community and each of these parcels will add or subtract from the livability and aesthetics and functionality of our community,” said Kahlo, who now spends much of his time as a citizen advocate for the environment in development decisions.
Those community benefits are obvious and there already are efforts to plant more trees.
The city is partnering with groups such as Keep Indianapolis Beautiful to increase tree plantings.
Citizens Energy has an ongoing initiative to plant 10,000 trees across Indianapolis to provide additional stormwater storage during rain events. The goal is that trees will capture more water before it makes it into pipes and often causes sewer overflows into city waterways.
The Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University also is working to help various towns across the state prepare for climate change. Those efforts have included, if not heavily relied on, planting more trees.
Advocates say they will always take more trees, but those initiatives need to be paired with plans for maintaining the trees the city already has.
“The public likes to plant trees, but the bucket has a hole in it,” said Daniel Poynter, executive director of Carbon Neutral Indiana. “If we keep filling the bucket but it has a leak, it is not going to make a difference. We need to add more but we need to stop the forest loss.”
According to a document from the Land Stewardship Office, the city lost an average of 40 acres of natural woodlands each year between 1999 and 2005. While more recent data was not immediately available, advocates say there is nothing to indicate the trend has changed.
Jeremy Kranowitz with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful said the goal is to have a net gain of trees year-over-year. His group works with the city to plant more trees across Indianapolis, particularly focusing in areas that have limited green space and the highest levels of social vulnerability.
Still, Kranowitz said new trees “never will be as good as the original standing of trees.” He said losing a tree that’s 10 feet around and replacing with a dozen that are 10 inches around “will take a long time to fully replace the benefits” — as many as seven to 10 years.
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Many of the neighborhoods lacking in tree cover, such as the Near Westside, are the same that experience the highest levels of social vulnerability, which is based on the number of people in the area below 200% of the federal poverty level, the number of children and adults over 65, as well as other social factors.
These areas also are some of the hottest neighborhoods. Trees can help with these issues by helping to cool areas, reduce energy usage and cut utility bills, and purify the air.
Paula Brooks with the Hoosier Environmental Council said many of these communities need help and healing. One of the best ways to do that is with trees, said Brooks, the group’s environmental justice coordinator.
'The city talks a good talk'
Nearly everyone agrees on the benefits of trees.
Bill Kincius, the director of urban forestry for the city’s Department of Public Works, said he is “amongst the choir as far as understanding the benefits of urban forests.”
The rub is how to preserve the urban forests and maintain these benefits.
The city of Indianapolis has multiple plans including Thrive Indianapolis, the White River Vision Plan, watershed management plans, neighborhood quality of life plans and a parks master plan in which forest preservation is a goal or would help achieve other objectives.
But residents and environmental advocates say those are just words. They want to see action.
“It’s hard when driving around and you see these sites where wooded tracts have been cleared for development,” Kahlo said. “It’s hard to come away from that with thinking the plans are effective at all and actually making a difference on the landscape.”
Recent examples of such development include 18 acres that were carved out of a 60-acre forest, and another six acres of trees that were leveled before a judge put a stop to the project partially on environmental grounds.
Carol Mullins of the Crooked Creek community grieves the loss of dozens of trees for a development in the northwest pocket of the city. She said it was very frustrating to see the trees go, adding that project speaks directly to the report and the seeming lack of oversight.
“The city talks a good talk,” Mullins said, “but sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t.”
The city said it’s difficult for them to prescribe what property owners can do with their own land. It does have an ordinance in which developers are required to protect or replace heritage trees, or those of at least 18 inches in diameter.
The city said this promotes keeping as many trees as possible or replacing them with more trees than developers remove. But developers can request variances that provide breaks from the city's requirements. City officials did not respond to IndyStar requests for how many variances to the tree provision have been granted.
When a landowner puts forth a property for development, that proposal moves through the Metropolitan Development Commission and must fall under the type of zoning designated in the city’s land use plan.
A spokesperson with the Department of Metropolitan Development said the agency's staff “analyzes petitions based on municipal policies adopted by the [commission] to ensure that environmental sustainability is at the forefront of development.”
City planners sometimes adjust developers' plans to protect or replace older, larger trees. But the development commission is not required to follow through on the planning team’s recommendation.
The city also believes that its “best opportunity to engage on this issue is by focusing on protecting the trees on property which we own or influence,” said Ben Easley with the public works department.
Kincius said he thinks there is great value in the Forest Alliance’s report and how it quantified forests. But what that means in the process is up to city leaders and the folks that oversee development and land acquisition.
Stant with the Alliance and others recognize the challenge of the land being private. But he believes there are a variety of strategies that can be used to protect Indianapolis’ urban forests, including methods in which the city plays a role.
He said the city could strengthen ordinances when it comes to development and protecting trees. It could also offer incentives to landowners to maintain their forests.
What Stant and others would really like to see the city do is acquire more forested plots of land — either by purchasing property or accepting them as donations — or partner with organizations that can preserve wooded areas.
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There are challenges at play, however. It can be difficult to determine which plots of land to look for, but IFA hopes its inventory and ranking system will make that easier and help the city prioritize certain areas around the city.
The other big obstacle is funding, both to purchase and maintain the property.
“Funding for park properties alone is really low, way below our peer communities,” said Kincius, the city's urban forestry director. “Until those things change, it’s hard to think outside the box.”
More wooded parcels under the city’s purview would be welcome, he added, but they come with costs and commitments. To achieve “transformational changes” Kincius said the City-County Council “would have to figure out ways to fund these efforts with alternative sources that don’t really exist right now.”
The report recommends several grant opportunities. Though they are not long-term or permanent funding sources, they might be able to help with getting land acquired.
City-County Councilor John Barth, who leads the council's sustainability committee, said he is investigating additional funding sources for green space around Indianapolis. Quantifying the value of Indianapolis’ forests can help with establishing budgets and understanding what might be lost from development, he said.
He thinks it is important for the city to get involved in a thoughtful but aggressive way to protect trees — be it through land acquisitions or when developments need city approval or seek financial support.
“All of those steps are opportunities to be thoughtful and creative in preserving urban forests,” Barth said.
One of those creative approaches is coming from Poynter’s group, Carbon Neutral Indiana, which got its start through the Forest Alliance.
The group wants to generate carbon offsets by establishing easements to protect forested areas across the city. Those offsets can then be sold to corporations or even individuals looking to negate their carbon emissions. And doing so generates income for the landowner, serving as an incentive to preserve the property.
They’ve started this effort with a pilot project of about 100 acres in Eagle Creek Park. Even though it’s publicly owned, acres of the park have been chipped away throughout the years for development.
But by creating a carbon credit, that land is protected and IndyParks gets some additional revenue, Poynter explained.
“This would be new money they’ve never seen before and could go to purchase new land, and it just goes around and around,” he said.
This initial effort was to show the public what’s possible, Poynter said, but they hope to expand the initiative, and quickly: “There is so much opportunity to get private landowners involved,” serving as an incentive to join the push to protect Indianapolis’ urban forests.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indianapolis urban forests worth millions. But they're disappearing.