Local conservationists pushing for a progressive new city tree ordinance are hoping that a recently released Urban Ecosystem Analysis for San Antonio will bolster their case before the City Council.

The study was conducted by American Forests, the nation's oldest non-profit citizen conservation organization, and it used satellite photography to chart the city's forestation levels between 1985 and 2002. At a November 13 gathering of San Antonio tree activists, Gary Moll, American Forests vice-president of urban forestry, presented the group's findings, summing up the data with a mantra even environmentally challenged politicians can understand: “Green infrastructure has dollar value.”

American Forests determined that over the last 17 years, the Greater San Antonio area has lost 22 percent of its tree cover, and the City itself has seen a 39 percent loss. But the most powerful element of the study was its finding that the loss of current tree cover would cost the metropolitan area more than $70 million annually. That total includes $42 million in air-pollution costs and nearly $18 million in added energy costs. The study also concluded that tree loss would cost the area $1.3 billion in additional storm-water runoff expenses.

“It gives a rational basis to the argument `for a new ordinance`,” says Richard Alles, a representative for the locally based Citizens' Tree Coalition. “`Moll` made a specific recommendation as to what our canopy cover should be, and his recommendation is based on a balance between development and preservation. So we can calculate what we need to put into our tree ordinance in order to get that kind of tree cover.”

The City Council was supposed to pass a tree ordinance in 2000; more than two years later, the Council still hasn't tackled the proposed ordinance, which critics say has more teeth than the current one, but still lacks adequate bite to protect San Antonio's trees. This delay has allowed developers to file plats for future sprawl — hoping their proposed box store or subdivision will be grandfathered — or to slash trees while they can. For example, several heritage trees near Fair Oaks and I-10 could be headed for the chainsaw to make way for an 18-pump Chevron station and McDonald's.

“Some of the council people who might be undecided on the tree-ordinance issue might be swayed by something like this,” added Alles. “And it always helps to have this kind of study, because we have the dollar values and the recommendations. The developers don't have anything like that. All they've got is, 'Well, we don't want to do that.'”
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