The Year of the Tree

Author: Vanessa Remmers
Source: Visit Site
The Year of the Tree

CBF backed nine tree conservation bills in Virginia in 2024, and a historic number of them made it all the way to the governor’s desk

When she drives down the Richmond, Virginia parkway, Ann Jurczyk sees what isn’t there—yet. She points off to her right where a sprawling lawn serves as the gateway to a business campus. “I’m going to contact them,” she says. That open space, in her mind, should be a grove of native trees.

Jurczyk, Virginia Director of Advocacy and Outreach for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), is minutes away from checking on dozens of native trees CBF helped plant on another business site in an industrial section of town. Just before her destination, another grove catches her eye. A handful of large white oaks are encircled by yellow tape, indicating they’ll likely be cut down soon to make way for an office park.

“It will take over 50 years for new plantings to replace the value these mature trees are providing,” she says, noting the loss of habitat for songbirds and the ability to capture carbon. “This isn’t just a loss for the environment. People need trees and green space.”

But she knows this site with the yellow tape is one of many across the state. In recent decades, the bare lawns of neighborhoods and business campuses have replaced forested land across Virginia. Close to her home in Fredericksburg, Jurczyk watched shopping centers, energy infrastructure, and widening roads replace canopy, just as it did in other localities. “We can’t stop development, but we can be more intentional and thoughtful in how we build,” she said.

Trees disappeared at an alarming rate, a net loss of 9,548 acres of urban and forest canopy between 2014 and 2018 in the Commonwealth. New Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) imagery is anticipated to show exponential loss from 2018 to 2022.

The results are hitting home. Residents began noticing their local waters are increasingly polluted. Their streams and homes more frequently suffered from floods. City residents in formerly redlined areas suffered from a lack of shade in the hot sun during summer months, living in what are now known as urban heat islands. Utility bills went up.

All the while, Jurczyk’s state-level advocacy that stretched back to 2018 kept her testifying on the General Assembly floor and keeping partner organizations organized. That advocacy grew from her community-based tree work that stretched back even further, to 2012. To her family, co-workers, and the community, she became known as the Lorax, the Dr. Suess character who speaks for the trees.

“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was one of the first organizations that helped us get grant funding,” says Sheri Shannon, co-founder of Southside ReLeaf, a community-based organization dedicated to environmental justice in South Richmond by increasing green spaces, reducing pollution, and improving infrastructure. “When we talk to Ann about the inequities we face as a Black woman organization, she takes what we say, and she adapts it and uses it. And that I find to be so genuine. It’s never a transactional relationship with her.”

This isn’t just a loss for the environment. People need trees and green space.

– Ann Jurczyk, Virginia Director of Advocacy and Outreach, CBF

Shannon eventually joined Jurczyk in legislator offices, reminding them that by soaking up rainfall and filtering nutrients, trees are natural and effective pollution mitigation tools, lowering energy use and utility bills, protecting homes and businesses from floods driven by climate change, and providing shade, particularly in underserved areas. When Shannon nervously tugged her hair, Jurczyk texted her from across the room, “you look great, don’t worry.”
And whenever Jurczyk needed her own break, she returned to what mattered. She’d walk in her favorite park in Fredericksburg, and hug the trees.

“I’m going to get my tree fix is what she’d always say,” Kim Jurczyk, the oldest of Ann’s two daughters, said. “It’s an infectious love. Her whole body relaxes; she gets a certain stillness.”
This year, in the General Assembly session, something shifted. CBF backed nine tree-conservation bills, and a historic number of them made it all the way to the governor’s desk. These bills mainly give localities the authority to save trees before they’re cut down or replace them after they’re lost to construction.

“We’ve lost so many battles, but we’ve come a long way,” Jurczyk said. “We have never had so many legislators contact us asking if we had a tree bill they could patron. I think their constituents were asking them to do something. They were disgruntled with the amount of tree loss in their neighborhoods.”

Four bills were signed into law, Shannon said.

“That doesn’t always happen. Policy doesn’t always translate to environmental justice work on the local level. But it really means something in my neighborhood, and Ann did that legwork,” Shannon said.

Driving back to CBF’s office from checking on the recent planting, Jurczyk names off ideas for contacting more businesses. Then her mind returns to what she loves.

“And, did you know, when they die, they disperse the last nutrients they have to the surrounding trees?” she says of trees. “We could learn so much from them.”

Check out other articles from the Spring 2024 edition of Save the Bay magazine.