Sierra Club Testimony on Protecting DC's Tree Canopy

Testimony of
Mark Rodeffer, Sierra Club DC Chapter Chair
before the
DC Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment
Implementation of 5G Small Cell Technology in the District of Columbia

November 19, 2018

Councilmember Cheh, thank you for holding this roundtable today on preparations for 5th Generation – or 5G – small cell technology in the District of Columbia. I am here to testify about what small cell infrastructure might mean for DC’s tree canopy.

My name is Mark Rodeffer. I’m a citizen forester with Casey Trees. Over the last decade, I’ve planted hundreds of trees across DC, in all eight wards, on both sides of the river, and even on an island in the middle of the Anacostia River. I’m also the chair of the Sierra Club DC Chapter. The Sierra Club has long been part of the fight to protect and expand our tree canopy in DC, and we were one of the primary groups behind the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002. The Sierra Club’s top priority is fighting climate change, and we strongly support the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act that you’ve introduced. Renewable energy is the key to combating climate change.

Trees also play a vital role in mitigating climate change, sequestering millions of tons of carbon that would otherwise pollute our climate. According to the most recent National Climate Assessment from the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program, trees absorb and store the equivalent of 16 percent of all carbon dioxide emitted annually by fossil fuel burning in the United States.

The Sustainable DC plan calls for the District to “plant and maintain 10,500 new trees per year in priority areas to achieve 40 percent tree canopy.” The Urban Forestry Division of the DC Department of Transportation is almost there – planting 9,123 trees last year. DC has approximately 170,000 street trees. Our street trees remove almost 7,000 metric tons of carbon pollution from the atmosphere every year. According to the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, the carbon taken out of the atmosphere from DC’s street trees is equivalent to the carbon emitted by burning 7.3 million pounds of coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet. To fight climate change, DC must continue and expand our efforts to ensure a healthy tree canopy in DC.

Councilmember Cheh, you have long been a strong partner of the environmental community on climate change, urban forestry and other important issues. And we congratulate you on your recent re-election on November 6. And because your re-election with 75 percent of the vote was actually the second most important experience for you that day, I want to congratulate you on the birth of your first grandchild.

Like most parents and grandparents, I’m sure you want your children and grandchildren to grow up in a safe, healthy community. You don’t want them to endure the worst effects of climate change – catastrophic flooding, seemingly endless heatwaves and deadly sea level rise. And you want them to enjoy the benefits of trees: cleaner air, less stormwater runoff, more shade and energy savings, natural habitats for wildlife, and the psychic benefits trees provide – not just aesthetics, but also encouraging people to enjoy the outdoors and relieve stress.

Your commitment, my commitment, and DC’s commitment to our urban forest is the reason I’m here today to testify about deploying small cell technology in DC.

DDOT's Draft Small Cell Design Guidelines state that “trees shall not be removed or have their critical root zones damaged for the installation of Small Cell infrastructure.” It’s a good thing that DDOT has thought about the effect that small cell technology will have on the trees of DC. However, deeper consideration of the issue is needed. Specifically, the District of Columbia must ensure that street trees are not aggressively pruned as DC moves toward small cell infrastructure. This technology requires a direct line of sight between small cells. That could require chopping off large portions of tree branches – which could kill some of the District’s largest and most majestic trees. These are trees that have been enjoyed by District residents and visitors for decades.

The Sustainable DC plan, in calling for more than 10,000 trees to be planted annually, notes that “without proper maintenance, the trees won’t flourish.” Trees do not flourish with aggressive pruning. When they die, it takes decades to grow new trees the size of the large canopy trees that have been lost. That’s not worth a slightly faster game of Angry Birds or a quicker download of the latest Ariana Grande song.

That’s not to say expanding small cell technology isn’t important. Like nearly everyone else in this room, I use my smartphone a lot, probably too much. I understand the need for faster data on wireless devices. But that should not come at a cost of damaging our tree canopy, which is just beginning to recover after decades of neglect.

The Sierra Club requests that before the deployment of small cell technology, the District government undertake a study of how this infrastructure will effect DC’s trees. We ask that the DC government develop a plan to ensure maximum protection of our trees and our tree canopy. Not just making sure the trees aren’t cut down and protecting the roots – but also protecting tree branches from heavy pruning.

We cannot and should not try to prevent the advancement of 5G technology in the District. But we must ensure our trees and our tree canopy are protected for future generations – for your granddaughter, for millions of others and for the future of the climate.