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Backstory: What is the value of a tree?

Antoinette Campbell loses an oak: Her a/c bill goes up $120 a month - the toll on her city is even bigger.

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Antoinette Campbell was justifiably shocked when city workers mistakenly chainsawed a 60-foot oak tree last May that shaded the eastern facade of her Washington, D.C., home.

"It was a personal something I had with that tree," says Ms. Campbell.

Besides the emotional distress, the error had an unexpected consequence: She noticed her air conditioner began running a couple hours earlier each morning.

Conventional wisdom is that just one shady tree can save a homeowner $80 a year in energy costs, but Campbell claims her bills skyrocketed once the oak disappeared - up to $120 more some months.

Yes, humble street trees cool the air, reduce pollution, and absorb storm-water runoff, say forestry experts. But the benefits aren't only ecological, they say. Property values are 7 percent to 25 percent higher for houses surrounded by trees. Consumers spend up to 13 percent more at shops near green landscapes. One study even suggests patients who can see trees out their windows are hospitalized, on average, 8 percent fewer days.

Events around the country for Friday's National Arbor Day will highlight the fact that citizens and civic leaders are finally investing in the so-called "urban tree canopy."

But efforts like these aren't a moment too soon. Overall, urban trees in America are threatened, says Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests. "Every city we've looked at, about three dozen, shows a decline of about 30 percent of the urban tree canopy in the past 10 to 15 years," she says. In some cities, the loss from disease, development, and neglect has been catastrophic. In Washington, D.C., for example, 64 percent of heavily forested areas disappeared between 1973 and 1997 - forest that once covered a third of the district now covers a tenth.

And the creep of suburban sprawl seems unstoppable. In the next 50 years, total American land mass reclassified from forest to urban is expected to equal the size of Montana, suggests US Forest Service data. To reverse the trend, cities like Jacksonville, Fla., San Francisco, Albuquerque, N.M., Des Moines, Iowa, and Indianapolis have ambitious reforestation plans. Los Angeles wants to plant 1 million trees. The Sacramento region has a goal to double the urban canopy in 40 years; Baltimore plans to double its own a decade sooner. Washington, D.C. is partnering with tree-planting groups and nonprofits like the Casey Trees Endowment Fund, an organization with a $50 million grant to combat the precipitous canopy decline.

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