Atlanta’s urban tree canopy leads the nation; but most trees are not protected

By Maria Saporta

This is second in a multi-part series about Atlanta’s tree canopy.

We have always described Atlanta as a city in a forest.

Amazingly, it is true. Our old growth forests are among our most special treasures in metro Atlanta.

Joan Maloof, founder of the Maryland-based Old Growth Forest Network, is an author who has written several books about the environment including her latest: “Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old Growth Forests.”

Joan Maloof

Joan Maloof urgest Atlantans to realize its special place as a city within a forest (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maloof was in Atlanta at Emory University giving a presentation, hosted by Eco-Addendum (Eco-A), to a standing-room only audience of people who want to conserve and protect our environment.

The title of her talk was: “Atlanta’s Priceless Forest.”

“Atlanta is really turning out for trees,” an impressed Maloof told the group. “But we are losing the forest cover on this planet. Every year, it gets worse.”

From 1990 to 2015, the world lost 314 million acres of forest, according to Global Forest Watch. And as we lose trees, we damage our earth. Trees help clean the air, filter the water and stabilize the soil. They also provide a crucial role in maintaining our eco-system of plants, birds and insects.

Maloof explained that not all forests and not all trees are equal. The most precious forests are the virgin and original forests – and they qualify to be included in the Old Growth Forest Network.

Kathryn Kolb, director of Eco-A, explained the differences.

Joan maloof

A standing-room only crowd listens to Joan Maloof’s presentation about Old-Growth Forests (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

A virgin forest is one that was never logged and trees that were never cut. These areas are rare in the United States, but some still exist intact in certain places.

An original forest usually is in a place where trees once may have been cut down, but the area has been minimally disturbed. Old growth trees in an original forest are often found on steep slopes, narrow stream corridors, rocky places or historic sites.

A native forest tends to be in an area with third growth trees that are mostly native, but soils may have been disturbed.

A non-native forest usually has been repeatedly timbered and the soils are highly disturbed. While the provide some green infrastructure and human health services, they have little ecological and bio reserve value.

Joan Maloof cities

Maloof said that 47.9 percent, Atlanta has the highest percentage of overall urban tree canopy in the nation when compared to other cities that have conducted Urban Tree Canopy assessments. (Old Growth Forest Network)

The most striking slide shared by Maloof was how Atlanta compared to other major cities when it comes to having an urban tree canopy.

Nearly 48 percent of Atlanta is covered by an urban tree canopy ­– placing the city well above all other major cities in the United States.

“We want to keep Atlanta on top,” Maloof said. “Our Southeast forests are so special.

Virgin forest covered the Southeast until 1821 when the Creek Indians ceded the land to the U.S. government. In the next several decades, forests had been turned into farms for cotton and other crops.

“By 1920, not much of that original forest was left,” Maloof said. “In the East, we have less than 1 percent of our original forest left – forests that have never been timbered.”

trees in United States

A view of how we’ve lost our forest cover in the United States (Old Growth Forest Network)

Atlanta is lucky to still have important parts of its original forest left intact.

But there are no guarantees that we will protect what we have.

Kolb put it this way.

About 5 percent of the City of Atlanta’s land is made up of parkland, nature preserves, greenways (367 parks totaling approximately 3,915 acres).

The total acreage, excluding the airport, is a total of 86,419 acres.

Most of our tree canopy, however, resides in private hands.

world and trees

The world has lost a tremendous amount of its tree cover in recent years (Global Forest Watch)

About 80 percent of Atlanta’s forest and tree canopy is located in single family residential zoning – areas that currently are not protected by a tree ordinance.

And there are no provisions to protect historic, old growth trees or unique specimen trees.

Maloof and Kolb have helped us realize what a special place Atlanta holds on earth.

At the height of sprawl, we were a region cutting down an average of 50 acres of trees each day. Now – as we adopt smarter growth policies – it is becoming more of a priority to preserve the marvel of trees and forest that do exist.

Now we as a region must become more engaged and adopt more pro-active policies to protect and treasure the trees and forests in our midst.

An important step was taken on April 25 when 14 Atlanta area forests were recognized by the Old Growth Forest Network. Here is a list of forest that are now part of the network:

Briarlake Forest and Hidden Acres Nature Preserve DeKalb County

Marvin F. Billups, Jr., Interim Director, DeKalb County Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs

Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, City of Atlanta

Edith Ladipo, Friends of Cascade Springs Forest, President, Cascade Community Business Association

Cumberlander, City of Atlanta                                                            

Jena Jones, Nature Photographer, Videographer, Greenspace Advocate

D’Agnese tract, City of Atlanta

Susan Rutherford, Watershed Manager, Sr., City of Atlanta Department

of Watershed Management

Daniel Johnson Nature Preserve/Herbert Taylor Park, City of Atlanta 

Sally Bayless, President Lenox Park-Morningside Neighborhood Association

Deepdene Park, DeKalb County   

Sandra Stewart Kruger, Executive Director, Olmsted Linear Park Alliance

Fernbank Forest, DeKalb County      

Susan Neugent, CEO, and Eli Dickerson, Ecologist, Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Herbert Greene Park, City of Atlanta           

Barbara Leath, Boulder park Neighborhood Association

Lionel Hampton-Beecher Hills Nature Preserve, City of Atlanta 

Bruce Morton, Friends of Lionel Hampton Beech Hills Nature Preserve, Co-Chair Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission

Lullwater Conservation Garden, City of Atlanta   

Jennie Richardson, President, and Kim Storbeck First Vice President, Lullwater Conservation Garden Club

Osborne Park, City of Brookhaven, DeKalb County  

Brian Borden, Director of Parks & Recreation, and Steve Strickland,

City Arborist, City of Brookhaven; Tom Reilly, Volunteer Team Leader, National Wildlife Federation, Adjutant VFW Post 10822

Outdoor Activities Center, City of Atlanta                          

Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, Board Chair, and Darryl Haddock, Director of Environmental Education & Proctor Creek Ambassador, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance

Private Forests:

McConaughey Nature Preserve and Historic Site, DeKalb County                    

Mary Emma and Dan McConaughey

Mosman Forest, City of Atlanta, Fulton County                                               

Wendy Hogg and John Noel

old growth forests

Metro Atlanta forests and their leaders are recognized by the Old Growth Forest Network (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Old Growth Forest

Old Growth Forest Network – Maloof’s goal is to have an average of one protected forest in each county (Special: Old Growth Forest Network)

This is the second in a series of columns about Atlanta’s tree canopy. Last week, the column focused on trees in the Peachtree Hills neighborhood that will be cut down for residential developments.

The next column will focus on possible ways we as a community can protect our precious tree canopy – including trees that are rooted in privately-held property.


Trees in Piedmont Park welcome Arbor Day (Photo by Maria Saporta)


A majestic Magnolia tree in Piedmont Park (Photo by Maria Saporta)


Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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