You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til It’s Gone –
Polar Bears Love Trees! Do You.
Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
Docents are a different breed. That’s a good thing. Conservation is part of our being. The general population is becoming more conservation aware. But the prevalent mind set follows the Joni Mitchell song lyrics “That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’. People react to crisis levels.
Docents have the awesome task to motivate people to make changes to their life pattern. A good starting point is with the zoo visitors. Hopefully they have some level of caring about the animals since they have chosen to be at the zoo.
I have had the opportunity at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium on various occasions to do a presentation on Polar Bears, trees and people. Today I will share with you the components of what I did and offer you some handouts so you might adapt it for an activity at your zoo. Spreading this far and wide in any form will help Polar Bears and us all.
As with most projects, the task of not letting the tangents go too far at one presentation was challenging. There are so many directions you can go with reducing carbon. Ultimately I decided on eating the carbon with trees.
Carbon footprint is being bannered around more often recently as a buzz phrase but the subject of carbon is large and only a fragment is being expanded upon. There is a need to know what some of the things carbon does, good and bad.
Carbon is the second most abundant element in our bodies. Oxygen is tops. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates all contain carbon, when the body breaks down that food you breathe out carbon dioxide.
Carbon based compounds make up our tissue and bones along with animal shells and bird wings. Frozen carbon dioxide is dry ice. Heating baking soda or baking powder when baking releases carbon dioxide; this gives baked goods their light fluffy texture. Carbon dioxide is commonly used in fire extinguishers. The hardest form of carbon is diamond.
This illustrates carbon is not like DDT that can be eliminated. Carbon is vital but needs controlled and monitored.
Facts are not going to motivate people. This is where the soulful eyes of the polar bear provide the opening.
The lead in is to show the pictures of polar bears intermixed with landscaped yards. Spark people’s curiosity. They want to know the connection between the subjects. Have conversations. We are teachers, it is easy to flip into teach mode. Buy-in works better as a conversation – make the zoo visitor feel part of the process, rather than a recipient of your information. You have their curiosity, your opportunity opens. “Yes, planting trees at your home will help the polar bears in their far away home”.
Planting trees is one of the cheapest, most effective means of drawing CO from the atmosphere. A very large portion of the carbon going into the environment occurs in the populated areas not the Arctic. It only makes sense that we begin to reduce it in our very own yard. The US Forestry Service and the Urban Forest put the figures out that a person generates approximately 2.3 tons of carbon in a year and a large healthy tree stores about 13 pounds of carbon annually. An acre of trees stores about 2.6 tons.
One of my brief career moves was a landscape designer for a nursery. 90% of the people coming to purchase a tree had little idea of how to actually plant a tree. If people invest time and money into planting a tree and it dies or damages their house they are less likely to attempt it again.
Polar Bears need trees and they need them NOW! We, as docents have the ability to spark the movement for individuals to take up the cause with immediate action. The statement “Plant a tree” is just a bit too vague and daunting for the majority. They will put it on the back burner to do someday.
One of the questions the posters at our presentation asked – “ Polar bears in the wild or only in zoos.” If we hesitate in getting healthy trees in the ground, we may be answering our great- grandchildren’s questions about what it was like when polar bears lived in the wild; they will likely never know that world.
Today you will get information on how to plant, where to plant and what to plant to succeed in eating carbon and keeping ice for polar bears.
We give mixed signals. We tell how strong the polar bear is, how their paws enable them to be good swimmers. We tell of shrinking ice. Many a zoo visitor (mostly macho males) have remarked the polar bear will learn to swim longer distances to get to ice; the survival of the fittest syndrome. A single line drawing showing the ocean shelf, where the seals feed in relation to the shrinking ice, gives them a visual sparing in-depth conversation on deaf ears. Less ice, seals can’t feed, and there goes the polar bear’s food source.
The Polar Bear has the awesome power combined with cuteness but that isn’t enough to entice the homeowner to plant. Now it is our spot to explain the Win-Win part for the homeowner to make this investment. Curb Appeal, Yard Crashers, Jamie Durie Outdoor Room are a few of HGTV’s yard improvement shows extolling the value added to the properties with trees and landscaping. Some homeowners associations have fines if the yard does not meet neighborhood standards. A recent study indicated that trees added $9,500 or more than 18% to the average sale price of a residence in Rochester, NY.
Even more incentive in this financial climate is the benefit of saving on energy costs. Homeowners that properly place trees in their landscape can realize savings up to 58% on daytime air conditioning. In a 1993 “Sacramento: Argument for Land Conservation Document”, it suggests that three mature trees for every unshaded single family home could save over $2 billion in energy costs per year; imagine what that translates to as energy costs have gone up in the eight years since then.
The sun is hottest on the south and west sides of the house. Planting in these locations is instrumental in reducing cooling costs. The evaporation from a single large tree can produce the cooling effect of 10 room size air conditioners operating 24 hours a day.
Any side of the house exposed to wind benefits from trees planted to act as a wind baffle. A zig zag tree line rather than a straight line works best for this. This allows air movement through the trees but not at clockable miles per hour. Also at maturity the trees will not intermingle and create dead sides.
Limiting the exposure to the ravages of wind and the beating sun can help to keep the exterior of the house from looking worn, saving maintenance expenses. The furnace or heat pump will not run as long. The USFS estimates the annual effect of well positioned trees on energy use at 20-25% when compared to a house in a wide open area.
Especially in the warmer climates with water conservation pricing, as well as other areas of the country with water restrictions, there needs to be a rethinking of the expanses of green lawns that are prevalent.
Everyone needs to follow the ‘new thinking’ before they too come under water restrictions. The lush green lawns are the elephant in the room. New construction has mandates for low flow fixtures and water efficient appliances. Many people are making these upgrades in older homes. Yet the Great American Lawn as the ultimate front yard still exists. Multiple trees in the front yard are a beginning to making the change. The result will be a more striking curb appeal than lawn plus add useful carbon eating trees to the environment. A tree or shrub once established will need minimal watering. A lawn
will continue to have unending water demands.
An eco friendly way to water the trees is to buy a dollar store bucket and drill multiple holes in the bottom. Bury the bucket at the crown line of the tree; roots are corresponding diameter in the ground as the leaf canopy you can see. Pour your gray water into the bucket; it will slowly and deeply water the tree. 2-liter soda bottles with the bottom cut off and the lid off buried neck down will also work. You will need several depending on the size of the tree. Screening or netting across the top of the opening will keep any small critter from falling in. If you get any amount of regular rainfall, buckets and bottles can be removed once a tree is established. That is one or two calendar years- if planting is done in the
fall the following fall (or occasionally the second one if it was a rough, unusual weather year) or spring to spring.
Fall is a great time to plant, all the tree’s energy can go into forming a great root system since the demand for flowers and leaves is past Trees are carbon sinks. Carbon sinks are places where carbon is stored because more carbon dioxide is absorbed that emitted. In the tree’s case it is stored as cellulose in the trunk, branches, leaves and roots. Half of a trees dry weight is carbon. Carbon storage is related to the size of the tree. Growth rate is also a factor. Large trees with a slow growth rate and small trees with a fast growth rate in the first few years can have the same carbon storage capabilities.
One of the frequent questions the zoo visitor asks is “How can a tree growing locally help the level of carbon in the Arctic atmosphere”. Fossil fuel use is much greater in the populated areas; have the trees eat the carbon where it is produced. Emissions are approximately 5 billion metric tons/year; I can’t begin to get my head around the concept of how big that is but anything with billion is large. Carbon in the atmosphere comes mainly from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. The Arctic is not contributing to the issue at anywhere near the pace we are creating/enabling the issue here. If each area of the country, city, neighborhood develops carbon sinks here, we will contain our own carbon. The
Arctic won’t have our pollution in their neck of the woods, so to speak, if we increase or trees here and now.
The following chart shows parts per million by volume of carbon dioxide in Mauna Loa Hawaii. This area has no manufacturing jobs. The rise is mainly influenced by fossil fuel use.
An important part of carbon sinks, when the tree is cut down not only is it no longer absorbing carbon, all the carbon that was stored in the tree is released into the environment. Reforestation is a step, but a new sapling is hundreds of times smaller than the tree that was removed. The sapling will need to grow considerably to absorb the released carbon along with new carbon we are adding each day. Playing catch up won’t work as long as people continue to add more carbon than there are trees. Multiple well- spaced saplings are needed for each tree removed.
There are several typical bloopers of tree planting. One is when a newly purchased tree looks small, people eyeball placement rather than use a tape measure not allowing for the mature tree size: result, the tree grows too close to the house. Correct location in the landscape is important to eliminate the double whammy of future removal of the tree as it matures.
The single most common reason a tree dies is from being planted too deeply. This death occurs several years after planting when the tree finally dies of asphyxiation. People don’t see the cause and effect so they are perplexed and discouraged from planting again. The cure is simple but it is the most neglected piece of information- more often than not it isn’t mentioned to the tree purchaser. Never cover the collar of the tree. The tree must breathe and this is a crucial point of transfer. Too deep in soil is a sure killer. Too deep in mulch will result in a scraggly tree at best and it still will likely die.
A simple flyer with this diagram along with a few points about tree behavior can be handed out. A tree that drops its leaves when planted is not dying, it is self-preservation; putting the energy into the roots. New leaves will appear. Also in the flyer you need a few really cute pictures of polar bears to help prod them along and keep them excited about their ability to help. We have been extolling the advantages for the human aspect, but we don’t want to lose sight that the win-win will keep the polar bears in the wide open Arctic. Zoos can never replace the wild.
People like knowing they are making a difference, but exercise is about the only component of people’s lives that ‘no pain –no gain’ is a buy in. As docents we can facilitate this becoming a much simpler process.
Pass out lists of tree suggestions for your area. There are a few examples on the table for you to pick up if you haven’t already done so. Show pictures of landscapes and eye-catching trees. A few suggested sources: Garden Gate and Fine Gardening magazines, Better Homes & Gardens series of books, Successful Planting A-Z and What Plant Where and the companion book Tough Plants for Tough, Places. Tons of info available. There are many tree books at the library and the bookstores, very few are pared down to your own region of the country. You begin by looking at an overall map to determine your planting zone, this is based on temperature in an area of the country. Google ‘zone planting map’ will get you several choices. USDA is a one with good detail and accurate information. Surprisingly arborday.org was
disappointing, giving a wide zone range and was not accurate. My area is 5b, this site stated 6-7. Most trees for zone 7 would not survive a winter in my area.
If you give tangible plans with plenty of suggestions so that everyone does not create the same exact landscape, you will get results. If the information is vague, the noble thought remains just that and does not make it to roots in the ground. More than planting the idea, your help in doing the planning and up-front leg work can make the difference. Instead of an overwhelming concept, you are giving steps that bring results. This does not have to be a job for professionals. Remember, Noah’s Ark was built by amateurs. The Titanic was built by professionals.”
Do the majority of your neighborhoods have overhead power lines. For that situation a tree maturing to 25’ would be recommended unless the homeowner really wanted a yearly pruning task. We don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone’ also applies to the scalping the utility companies give to trees when the growth is into their lines – sometimes hard to recognize the tree.
Trees for back yards and yards with underground utilities are only dictated in size as to what is appealing to the balance of the house and landscape. Look through books and magazines for ideas, being aware and careful to not choose landscapes with a great deal of counterintuitive paved surfaces.
The trees are to be carbon sink. The paving is a heatsink. Heat is a contributor to the unbalance, be cautious to not lose sight of the carbon eating results that you are striving for. Limit massive paving areas.
We all forget things; that is why we use memo boards and post-it notes. When items are forefront we are reminded to act on them. Looking at the trees in the yard will be the memo to turn off a light, or unplug an appliance after use or any of hundreds of other ways to help conserve.
How many trees to plant. There are as many guidelines for number of trees per household to plant as there are groups promoting them. It is comparable to having your furnace and air conditioner sized /rated based on the square footage of your house. First said, a single tree is an improvement. But one tree alone can only do so much. A general minimum guideline is one medium to large tree for every person in your household. Sometimes it is stated as all bodies in a household then that can include our pets. The balance is to offer a pleasing yard environment, so that the trees are not cut down in the future. Back at the beginning you heard the figure of 2.3 tons of carbon generated per person per year.
At that rate we need an acre of trees per person. So we must continue to improve at conservation while we are planting trees. It is the best hope for the Polar Bears and the rest of our world. And it doesn’t cost billions, depend on legislation or industry, it is something each person can do and pass forward to the next person to do.
Those of us that live in northern climates and those who visit in the snowy months are aware of the intense glare of the sun off of the white snow. In the book On Thin Ice, Richard Ellis elaborates on important aspects of the snow glare. 1 the Arctic Sea acts as a giant mirror reflecting the sun back into st space. Then as warming diminishes snow and ice cover, there are more dark surfaces. The darker surfaces absorb more solar radiation resulting in more warming and more ice melt. Just as we wear light colors in the summer to minimize absorbing heat, the Arctic needs to have white covering for the same reasons.
As much as the polar bears pictures and the piece of fabric to feel (representing the dermal bumps on the pads of the polar bear’s feet- involve multiple senses-see, hear, touch) were a draw, there was another segment of this presentation that provided the most feedback from zoo visitors. Goes to show that after 19 years as a docent and I’ve found that you learn you can never gauge the parts of your talks or posters that will have the most reaction.
As the Joni Mitchell song says: Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They paved over paradise to put up a parking lot.
The most interaction was on shopping centers and parking lots. Parking lots occupy 10% of overall land in US cities with the downtown sectors as much as 30%. Parking lots for regional malls can be as large as 60 acres.
When shopping was done in small towns many were tree lined streets. Then the first rounds of shopping centers popped up. This was the beginning of paving over more of paradise. If there were any trees included at all, they were a few around the edge, similar to parsley around the pig.
As the economic down turn continued, stores closed and shopping centers began operating with 30% occupancy. Land developers, without respect or knowledge about our planet, decide a new shopping area will be an economic fix. Another paradise is paved over and the old shopping center with all its acres of parking remains as a heatsink, with runoff complications. People from every area of the surrounding Pittsburgh and eastern Ohio areas had conversation after conversation on this very aspect of too much pavement / too few trees. Many spoke of activities previously enjoyed in the old treed neighborhoods that are totally lost now. Much disgust was expressed that the shopping center owners
are not accountable on their own or aren’t held accountable by the governing body of that area. The eyesore of acres of unused pavement was unsettling. The price of doing business was to turn a blind spot to the blemish in their neighborhoods. People were quite passionate in their outrage that companies have no accountability for what they leave behind. Some of the richest companies built a new store down the road and leaving the acres of pavement and original building as heatsinks and eyesores, this repeatedly was stated as discouraging and upsetting.
It can be changed, some places have included specifications in the building permit that mandates that in 15 years (as a tree reaches maturity) each shopping center needs to have 20-50% of the paved area be treed. Anyone in any of the building or engineering trades knows that specifications are merely items that are signed back as exceptions. It takes time and a lot of push to get good ideas to become standard practice.
People do understand that changing political elements to influence the business community takes time. We need trees now! This brings you back to the task at hand, excite them to be picking out trees and digging holes before the month is over. Sooner and more are even better. Impel them to take the action they can control – their own.
When a neighborhood converts to a tree Mecca with trees, trees and more trees, this may do more to prompt actions to have businesses follow suit than anything else. Lead by example. Many times is it stated on the closing scene of the Curb Appeal show, someone stating now that part of neighborhood is treed and landscaped they need to do the same to keep pace with the neighbors. You can stir them to create the first step by spelling it out, eliminating the maybe ifs; ready to put one foot on the shovel and plant the tree.
All the changes we make conservation-wise in the future may be for naught if we don’t eat the carbon already in place. The polar bears will thank you and you will thank yourself. When the question is raised ‘why did the population not implement the single most cost effective way to eat carbon when they could.’, you can proudly say you did spread the message and planted your own trees.
Beauty increases, stress eases, utility bills stop skyrocketing, property values increase and carbon eating is in progress. You planted trees! You encouraged others to plant trees. When you look into those Polar Bear eyes, you will know you have made a difference to their future.
- Prow, Tina, “The Power of Trees”, Human Environmental Research Laboratory at University of Illinois.
- Nowak, David J., “Benefits of Community Trees”, Brooklyn Trees, USDA Forest Service General Technical Report.
- American Forests, “The Case for Greener Cities”, Autumn 1999.
- McAliney, Mike, Arguments for Land Conservation: Documentation for Sources for Land Resources Protection, Trust for Land, Sacramento CA, December 1993.
- USDA Forest Service pamphlet #FS-363.
- American Forests, “How Trees Fight Climate Change”, 1999.
- Colorado Trees, “Urban Forests Improve Our Air”.
- Nowak, D.J., USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, 1994.
- Schneider, S.H., The Changing Climate, American Scientific, Sept. 1989.
- University of Washington, College of Forest Resources, Fact sheet #15.