By Ted Gregory
Lydia Scott logged more than 600 miles in her hybrid SUV last year, identifying tree species, measuring them and estimating their maturity on green patches from Chicago's South Side to far-flung Harvard.
She is both foot soldier and field general in the most comprehensive tree census of any large U.S. metropolitan area. The review, which also used aerial laser scanning, found that more than 157 million trees are growing in the seven-county Chicago region, a number that translates to about 21 percent of the area covered in trees and shrubs — well below the national average of 27 percent.
All that counting and cataloging reveal a somewhat bleak past for woody plants in the region, which is emerging from the emerald ash borer scourge that experts say will have wiped out 13 million trees by the time it moves downstate. Adding to that devastation is the European buckthorn — the area's most dominant tree, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all species — an invasive plant that shoves out the state's native oak.
The hope is that the specifics of that distressing picture can provide insights for an unprecedented campaign to turn around history. It's called the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, and the goal is to add more woody plants and keep them healthy — no matter what threats descend on northeast Illinois.
Scott, a former assistant public works director, is the campaign's executive director.
"It's more than trees," she said one afternoon at Morton Arboretum, the lead organization of the effort and where Scott works as the community trees program manager. "It's really quality of life. You go back to what you learn in grade school about nature as a web. One community is going to impact another community and on around. By working together, we can have a more collective impact."