Tree conservation picked up historic momentum in the Virginia General Assembly this session, getting local leaders one step closer to preserving and replacing more trees. The advancement comes as Virginia faces an alarming loss of tree canopy along with climate change threats.
“Virginia’s tree loss is clearly trending in the wrong direction. This is a climate change and equity issue. Local leaders are asking for ways to expand their tree canopy so they can cost-effectively reduce flooding, manage stormwater, and reduce the health impacts of urban heat islands and air pollution for their residents,” Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra, who introduced a bill that enables more statewide tree conservation, said.
Though tree conservation bills have historically stalled in the House of Delegates, multiple bills are now successfully moving through the General Assembly.
The progress signals landmark support from Virginia lawmakers.
Development, hotter wildfires, road widenings, invasive species, and increased energy infrastructure have all contributed to a net loss of 9,548 acres of urban and forest canopy between 2014 and 2018 in the Commonwealth. New imagery is anticipated to show an accelerated loss of tree canopy.
“A climate-ready Commonwealth must be a greener Commonwealth, and the easiest way for a locality to ensure they will have trees is to proactively preserve them,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Director of Outreach and Advocacy Ann Jurczyk said. “Trees are ultimately about people. They do so much more than beautify neighborhoods. This legislation would give local leaders a natural and sustainable tool to keep their residents’ utility bills low, prevent their streets from flooding, and protect their backyard streams from erosion.”
Trees absorb water and nutrients, enable soil to absorb rainfall more readily, and prevent erosion. Local leaders testifying in support of tree conservation bills have noted these abilities make trees one of the most productive and cost-effective ways to prevent polluted runoff from reaching waterways, protect streams, and alleviate flood impacts. A one-inch rainfall on a one-acre parking lot, for example, results in 27,154 gallons of water entering low-lying areas and streams. In a forest, the same amount of rainfall produces only 750 gallons of runoff.
They also cool neighborhoods, reduce energy use, and beautify communities. Neighborhoods lacking trees suffer from heat islands, which correlate to heat-related hospital visits and, according to this Science Museum of Virginia study, can be concentrated in formerly redlined areas, raising environmental justice concerns.
“We know that trees are some of the most important green infrastructure a city can tap into,” Bonnie Brown, Hampton’s Director of Community Development, said.
On Thursday and Friday, over 30 community members helped the City of Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation plant trees along a waterway in Poplar Hall Park to mitigate flooding and stream erosion. The project is part of Norfolk’s push to increase its tree canopy from its current 23 percent.
Watching parking lots and buildings replace green landscape topped the list of concerns for a number of the 90 Virginians who traveled from across the state Jan. 30 to meet with their representative during the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clean Water Lobby Day.
The General Assembly bills aiming to protect trees include:
- HB 529 introduced by Del. Patrick Hope
- Currently, localities have limited authority to replace trees lost during construction. The bill provides all localities with the authority to establish tree replacement requirements and enables localities to establish a tree fund if trees cannot be replaced on site.
- This bill cleared the House Counties Cities and Towns committee Feb. 2 by a 12-9 vote.
- HB 170 introduced by Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra and HB 1100 introduced by Del. Betsy Carr
- Currently, only Planning District 8 consisting of Northern Virginia localities, has the authority to adopt tree conservation ordinances. These bills enable all localities to conserve more trees during development.
- HB 170 was incorporated into HB1100 and passed the House Cities Counties and Towns committee on Feb. 2 by a 12-10 vote.
- HB 459 introduced by Del. Richard Sullivan and SB 121 introduced by Sen. Suhas Subramanyam
- Under these bills, localities can incentivize developers to conduct an assessment—before a site plan is submitted for approval—and take necessary precautions to preserve existing healthy trees. It also allows tree funds to be used for tree maintenance.
- HB 459 passed the House of Delegates by a 53-42 vote on Jan. 26 and has now been referred to the Senate Committee on Local Government. SB121 passed the Senate by a 40-0 vote on Feb. 1.
- HB 309 by Del. Patrick Hope and SB 461 by Sen. David Marsden
- The Forest Conservation Act would allow Virginia to determine how many acres of the Commonwealth’s forests are healthy, the cause behind the lost canopy acreage, how to reconnect forest fragments, and identify opportunities for further conservation efforts.
- HB 309 passed the House Natural Resources subcommittee Jan. 24 by a 10-0 vote and has now been referred the House Committee on Appropriations.
- Mitigate tree loss due to road construction.
- The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also urges legislators to support a budget amendment that directs the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to study the loss of forest and urban tree canopy due to road construction and create a restoration plan.
An expansion of tree cover is among the critical environmental issues CBF is prioritizing this legislative session.