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


A cluster of trees in Piedmont Park (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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

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.



  1. Steve Hagan May 8, 2017 10:01 am

    Excellent story….Thank you so much!!!!
    We are trying to Save 44 Acres of Forest in Tucker. Go to Facebook and enter Save 44 Acres Like, follow, commentReport

  2. Andrea Bennett May 8, 2017 12:42 pm

    The article says 80 percent of the tree canopy is in single family residential zoning that is not protected by a tree ordinance. What is the argument for exempting single family homes? They are covered by the ordinance here in the city of Atlanta.Report

    1. Jim Abbot May 8, 2017 7:21 pm

      For what it’s worth, Andrea, I typed a long comment on this same point and somehow failed to succeed in getting it posted here. I do think it’s important for readers to note that when Maria writes “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,” she means metropolitan Atlanta, not the City of Atlanta proper.

      Great article.Report

      1. Andrea Bennett May 9, 2017 5:06 pm

        Thanks for that clarification, Jim. The city of Atlanta ordinance is very strict and it applies to both residential and commercial properties. Something equivalent should be adopted by other cities and counties around the metro area, if they haven’t done so already.Report

  3. Jim Abbot May 8, 2017 2:07 pm

    Thank you, Maria. This is a wonderful and welcome series from the Saporta Report.

    One immensely important clarification, however. “City of Atlanta” and “metropolitan Atlanta” are NOT the same, as we all know perfectly well. And when it comes to trees and tree protection, the distinction between the two is critically important. So let’s be very, very clear.

    1. The figure “47.9% urban tree canopy” relates to the City of Atlanta. It’s a figure established in an important study led by Tony Giarrusso at Georgia Tech. (Note, however, that the 47.9 figure is now almost a decade old, as it was calculated in October 2008.)

    Saporta Report readers may wish to peruse the incredibly helpful and interesting maps, reports, and tools that Georgia Tech and its partners have created concerning the City of Atlanta’s trees. They can be found at http://geospatial.gatech.edu/Greenspace/.

    2. When Maria writes that “[a]bout 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,” I take it that she is referring NOT to the City of Atlanta but INSTEAD to the much broader region of metropolitan Atlanta, which sprawls across so many municipalities and counties.

    That MUST be true because the City of Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance DOES protect many trees on private property. Property owners may NOT remove, destroy, or injure ANY hardwood tree that is six inches or more in diameter (at breast height, i.e., roughly 4.5 feet from the ground) nor any pine 12 inches or more DBH. A permit from the City of Atlanta is required to remove, destroy, or injure such trees, even though they are on private property.

    To repeat, there IS indeed protection for many trees (of the sizes stated above) on residential lots zoned single-family in the City of Atlanta. If you live in the city proper and remove a tree in those categories without the necessary permit, you will be violating the law and will likely be fined, if it’s discovered.

    If I have misstated any facts in this comment, I welcome correction from others.Report

  4. Genevieve Schmidt May 9, 2017 12:05 pm

    thank you so much, Maria, for bringing this topic to the attention of your readers.Report

  5. Bill Gould May 9, 2017 12:47 pm

    A truly informative and timely article Maria, Thank You! This is Atlanta’s moment of truth..whether we can rise up to protect our remaining and essential tree canopy with a force and perseverance equal to the development pressures we now face.
    It’s really now or never in many cases, such as the 6 acre forest neighbors are currently rallying to save in East Atlanta!
    Let’s keep Atlanta’s urban forest and tree canopy #1 in the Nation FOREVER!Report

  6. ticklemewithmoney May 9, 2017 3:26 pm

    Protecting old growth forests is definitely important to the environment and I agree that they should be preserved. As referenced in your article, 80% of Atlanta’s forest and tree canopy are located on parcels zoned private single family residential. Zoned does not necessarily mean these parcels are owned by single families. However, single family residents are the individuals most impacted by the tree ordinance restrictions promulgated by City of Atlanta. This ordinance should be directed to developers who are responsible for destruction of urban tree canopy located in virgin and original old growth forest.. Restricting private home owners from removing trees from their properties does not add any value to to protecting Atlanta’s old growth forest.Report

  7. BPJ May 9, 2017 4:37 pm

    This is a helpful article overall, with one flaw: it uses “Atlanta” to refer interchangeably to the city and the metro area. This creates confusion, as seen in some comments above. The city of Atlanta’s tree ordinance is (as far as I know) more protective than the rest of the metro area; I think we can acknowledge this without being complacent. (As the previous article illustrated, there are problems with the city’s enforcement as well.)Report

    1. Jim Abbot May 10, 2017 7:19 am

      Yes, BPJ, this is an extremely important point about the City of Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance. I would hate for even one homeowner to illegally cut down even one tree within the city limits of Atlanta, on the basis of a misunderstanding derived from this otherwise worthwhile article by Maria Saporta.

      Yes, the City of Atlanta’s ordinance is one of the most protective in the country. If you are a homeowner who wants to cut down a hardwood tree six inches or greater in diameter at 4.5 feet from the ground or a pine 12 inches in diameter or greater at 4.5 feet from the ground, you need a permit from the city itself.

      Why? Because as a community, we recognize that if a homeowner clearcuts his or her property, he or she is imposing costs on the rest of us. Costs in greater air pollution, dirtier stormwater, etc. No one person owns our air and water; we all do.

      Note that I live in a neighborhood where support for tree protection and tree canopy replenishment is close to universal, and where most folks have at least a B.A. degree, but even so, lack of knowledge concerning the provisions in the city’s ordinance is not uncommon. It’d be great if the Saporta Report would add an asterisk and a clarifying comment.Report

  8. Pablo Correa May 7, 2019 2:30 pm

    I did not check the date but as of today, three cover worldwide has increased 7%, so now the world has more tree covered areas than in 1982. Therefore it is not accurate to say that tree cover is reduced every year.Report

  9. Laura W March 11, 2023 2:23 am

    March 2023 – Just finished reading this article after reading about the police, Governor, and Mayor wanting to tear down massive areas of forest for their “safety training” for police.They’ve already killed one tree protector, and arrested others, claiming terrorism. I wonder what – if any – suggestions you have for those outside of Georgia wanting to support protection of the existing forest that is planned on being destroyed. The ecological trauma to the area will be detrimental to Atlanta’s watershed, and so much flora and fauna will suffer and be lost.Report


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