The 42-acre wooded site on Route clear-cut by a developer in 2013 to make way for "The Shoppes." File photo: Denise Civiletti

Just when there’s new research on the value of trees, and the rising popularity of “forest therapy,” we find our Riverhead Town Hall stuck in the mud of tree-clearing.

Going back to the June 1882 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day….sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Many of us more than likely cannot spare four hours a day for “sauntering.” But a century after Thoreau’s article, in the 1980s, in one of the most densely populated countries on earth, with all the stress that goes with it, scientists in Japan developed “shinrin-yoku,” the practice of “forest bathing” — a bathing, that is, of the senses.

For the Japanese, and for increasing numbers of people here in the U.S. of late, this practice of forest therapy measurably lowers blood pressure and decreases heart rate and stress hormones, all while uplifting one’s mood, memory and concentration.

Other scientists, such as Michelle Kondo of the U.S. Forest Service, have shown further that forest-bathing boosts the immune system simply through exposure to phytonicides, one of the natural chemicals that trees release into the air. Note as well that doctors increasingly prescribe time in nature for patients suffering from anxiety, heart disease, obesity and other chronic ailments, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Guidelines for forest bathing are as simple as they are helpful. We get to an accessible, forested area, take necessary precautions against insects and ticks, and set aside that valuable commodity known as time, even for as little as 10 minutes.

Then we find a spot among the trees and undergrowth. We focus all of our senses — with eyes varying from closed to open. We feel our feet planted on the ground, and slowly breath in the air, even taste it, while absorbing every sound.

Now we know why many people say that they can feel a tree’s vibrational energy when placing their hands upon its bark. With their deep roots, trees carry significant grounding energy. And see a previous column from this space on the new science about trees and a tree’s heartbeat.

Any tree’s vitality translates into real, measurable benefits. This proves further why our town officials have to lead us to protect trees from careless clear-cutting by builders, and the all-too-familiar savagery against trees by power utilities.

Enter the Riverhead Planning Board, which once again just approved clear-cutting of another large wooded area on Route 58 for expansion of a car dealer’s parking lot. True, they don’t create that careless town policy — that’s the town board’s domain, where trees are a bipartisan low priority. But couldn’t the planning board hand up a strong recommendation against it to the town board? Of course they could.

The Riverhead Town Board recently showed a spark of sensible thinking with protecting our forested areas. They actually proposed a code change prohibiting clear-cutting of trees that would make way for solar panel farms. They even held a public hearing where their proposal met with broad public support. The town supervisor and all the board openly shared the overwhelmingly prevailing sentiment of the people — it’s nonsensical to clear forested areas in the name of clean energy.

Then, inexplicably, this proposal to save some trees in Riverhead disappeared, consumed into that black hole where sensible ideas in town hall forever meet their fate.

Consider this: tree cover in cities and towns, the sum total of trees along streets, in parks, and in commercial and residential landscapes, known as “urban forests,” are quickly declining. In fact, across the U.S., between 2009 and 2014, some 36 million trees were lost, according to U.S. Forest Service senior scientist David Nowak, co-author of the book, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening.

If the Village of Greenport can do it, why can’t Riverhead restore and sustain adequate tree cover here? Let’s get into why, and how, we definitely can.

Briefly stated, green infrastructure is real, long-term action against climate change. The U.S. Forest Service explains that urban forests alone in the contiguous U.S. sequester an estimated 37 million tons of carbon in a year by removing them from the atmosphere, storing them in their tissue and turning them into food. As for trees everywhere across America, they offset emissions from burning fossil fuels by up to 20 percent. Nowak’s study puts the total value of removal of pollution by US trees at $86 billion. Imagine if trees were an expanding rather than a declining resource!

Then there’s the $5.4 billion per year that trees save in energy bills just from their shade, while blocking winds and lowering air temperatures. Their purifying properties actually reduce asthma and other costly health issues. The release of water vapor by trees, along with their shade, alleviates one of the world’s most underestimated health threats – heat waves, which the World Health Organization tells us kill 12,000 people worldwide in an average year, an annual number that by 2050 is expected to reach 260,000. WHO also sets the death rate from air pollution at 7 million per year.

One famous 1970s study of patients in a hospital in Pennsylvania who were recovering from bladder surgery found that those in rooms that had a view of trees recovered more quickly than those looking out at another building.

And then there’s evidence provided by the American Journal of Epidemiology, from their 2017 study, that when Philadelphia residents were under tree cover, they were less likely to be assaulted with a gun. “Urban greening,” they report, “and tree cover may hold promise as proactive strategies to decrease urban violence.” This has all to do with findings in a literature review, published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concluding that urban forests improve mood and relieve stress, and may even save lives, given that gun violence is a top health issue faced by people in low-income communities. And that’s where there are the fewest trees.

Southampton Town requires replacing trees, limits tree removal and bans clear-cutting in its designated “Aquifer Protection Overlay District,” covering vast areas of that town. For its part, Riverhead lacks such town code protections of trees except where some wetlands are nearby. And neither town has a solid tree planting program, although their highway departments do plant some here and there.

Could Riverhead take a page from the City of Pittsburgh, with its plans to raise its tree cover from 40 to 60 percent by 2031, or from far drier Phoenix, which aims to raise theirs from 8 to 25 percent? Louisville, Kentucky launched a tree-planting program strictly for the purpose of alleviating their notorious heat waves. And interestingly, the City of Cleveland Tree Plan, available on-line, prioritizes underserved neighborhoods that lack adequate tree cover, aiming for “equitable distribution of the tree benefits.”

Riverhead, or any community, could start by identifying the right kinds of native trees to plant for an in-town environment. The National Wildlife Federation offers a free online tool for this. Then take the lead by bringing together residents, businesses, non-profits, the school districts (harnessing the energy of students committed to reducing the impact of climate change) and town government to collaborate on a long-term, tree-planting plan. The Arbor Day Foundation is an excellent source for grants and low-cost tree purchases.

And find at an excellent source for strategies for a community tree program. The town must sustain its tree cover with sensible watering (for that water vapor) for new plantings and annual or biannual pruning. There are funding sources for that as well, and here again, the town can partner with the private sector.

We can do this. We can make real contributions to stem climate change, and enhance both wildlife habitat and public health. Future generations will bless our leadership and foresight. And someday, right in downtown, we could find those special places where we could do our own shinrin-yoku.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg