City Paper is not for tourists
The District considers counting the green in greenery.
If a District nonprofit gets its way, the old saw about where money doesn’t grow will have to be revised.
Last month, the Casey Trees Endowment Fund, an arm of the Garden Club of America dedicated to restoring the urban forest canopy of Washington, D.C., finished taking inventory of the District’s street trees. Now, the endowment is trying to convince the D.C. government to include those trees in financial reports as an “infrastructure-type asset,” as Executive Director Sheila Hogan puts it.
The Casey Trees count turned up some 106,000 trees. According to Hogan, the group estimates each one’s value at $1,000—which will put an extra $106 million on the District’s books, if the Office of the Chief Financial Officer agrees with the request.
The proposal comes as the District implements GASB 34, a set of accounting guidelines for state and local governments put out in 1999 by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. Under those financial-reporting rules, cities are required to go beyond basic revenue-and-expenditure statements to keep track of the value of their long-term liabilities and assets, such as roads and sewers.
Casey Trees wants the District’s ledger to reflect “green infrastructure,” a term encompassing trees, parks, and other forms of public greenery. The theory, Hogan says, is that if trees are counted as long-term assets, they’re more likely to be cared for and invested in. Dutch elm disease—which the survey found afflicts roughly 700 D.C. street elms—might be addressed more effectively, Hogan suggests. The city also could cultivate a more diverse array of tree species, which the endowment has identified as a need.
“If it’s on your books, you tend not to forget about it,” Hogan says.
But does GASB allow trees to be included on city financial reports? Dean Mead, a project manager for the
accounting-standards organization, says that it’s up to the cities. Some municipalities, Mead says, have contacted GASB to ask if they’re supposed to go out and tally up their own pines and maples; it’s not required, he says, but places that have completed a tree count are welcome to put the results on the balance sheet.
Valuing them is a trickier matter, though. Casey Trees’ suggested $1,000 figure is an estimate, reflecting values calculated for other cities in a July 2002 report in the Journal of Arboriculture. That study used trees’ structural and aesthetic qualities, such as trunk width, species, and location, to compute what they were worth.
Casey Trees is exploring more elaborate valuation systems, some of which look at the dividends trees pay by cleaning air or catching stormwater. Under those methods, Hogan says, the value per tree is likely to be greater than $1,000.
Take stormwater, for example. According to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization, D.C.’s trees can handle as much as 68.8 million cubic feet of storm runoff—holding water on their leaves and branches, where it evaporates or is routed into the soil. Manmade retention systems cost $5 per cubic foot of capacity. By this calculus, the District’s trees are worth $344 million.
Such a comprehensive accounting of trees’ potential value would surpass “what financial statements are designed to measure,” Mead says. GASB says that cities are supposed to value their trees, like any capital asset, at original cost—the purchase price, adjusted for depreciation.
This is, tree proponents argue, an over-simple ruling. Unlike garbage trucks or school buildings, a healthy, growing tree should increase, not decrease, in value over time. In Richmond, Va., the difficulty in measuring such arboreal appreciation helped convince officials not to count the city’s trees as assets at all.
In D.C., the Office of the Chief Financial Officer is silent, for the time being, on the possibility of adding the tree canopy to the ledger. The District’s head bookkeeper won’t reach a preliminary position on the issue until at least mid-September, spokesperson Eric Balliet says; after that, the city will seek comment from independent auditors.
Some other jurisdictions have already gone ahead and put trees on their books. Los Angeles, for example, lists “urban forest” in its General Plan (though not on its financial reports themselves) as one of 13 infrastructure and public-service systems—along with public schools, libraries, the police department, and street lighting. L.A.’s street trees are valued at a whopping $2 billion.
“Most cities don’t value their trees,” says Andy Lipkis, president of Beverly Hills-based TreePeople, which lobbied to get L.A.’s forest added to the city’s infrastructure list. “They’re seen as a wonderful enhancement to the city, but they’re mostly viewed as decorations and a cost.”
Hogan says Casey Trees has discussed adding trees to the ledger with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and transportation department head Dan Tangherlini. Casey Trees will also seek the imprimatur of rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, to bolster its case with the city, Hogan says.
Tony Bullock, spokesperson for Williams, praises the work Casey Trees has done on the survey, but has doubts about including trees among the municipal finances: “They’re not assets that can be converted to currency, which is generally a test that any self-respecting asset must meet.”
Rating agencies, he adds, may be “a little suspicious” if the city suddenly begins claiming multi-million-dollar assets where it previously hadn’t listed any.
“If this is an exercise in getting a municipality to recognize the value of infrastructure and the potential future cost of maintaining that infrastructure, that’s a useful exercise,” Bullock adds.
It’s not likely, then, that the city will be clear-cutting Connecticut Avenue a few years hence, to free up some cash for major projects.
Nor, Hogan says, would it be wise to try. More than 400 volunteers, she points out, took part in the tree survey. “Given the kind of participation we had…I think that would be political suicide,” she says. “Trees are very popular.” CP