Letter to the Editor: Trail Tree Loss Has Quantifiable Carbon Impact

~Submitted by Molly Haskell

We can calculate how much total and annual carbon is sequestered in the trees along the Reformatory Branch Trail (RBT). Because of the carbon impact of clearing 4.34 acres of trees to build the Minuteman Bikeway Extension, I urge you to vote no on article 10 at Town Meeting on November 14/15th.

i-Tree Canopy analysis shows the 4.34 acres of trees sequester the CO2 equivalent of 55,441 miles of gasoline per year.  Further, i-Tree Canopy determines the trees themselves hold the CO2 equivalent of 1,391,645 car miles. 

i-Tree is “a state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed software suite from the USDA Forest Service that provides urban and rural forestry analysis and benefits assessment tools.”

To offset the annual carbon capture performed by the 4.34 acres, commuting cyclists would need to add 2,217 25-mile round trips annually. To offset the carbon currently sequestered in the 4.34 acres, 55,665.81 additional trips will be needed.  We would need to attribute all these trips merely to paving 1.7 miles of the RBT. 

Verify calculations and references here: https://savereformatorytrail.org/.

The RBT is used by commuters today.  How many?  There is no use study. 

  • When would new bicycle commuter usage offset the 1,391,645.36 miles’ worth of carbon currently sequestered in the 4.34 acres of trees?
  • Would 1.7 miles of asphalt induce cyclists to commute 2,217 additional 25-mile trips each year? 
  • What is the barrier now on the RBT for any bicycle commuter to take even one more 25-mile ride?  
  • Does “getting just one car off the road justify all the trees” removed, as asserted publicly by members of the Select Board?

The area analyzed by i-Tree Canopy is a partial reckoning of the full tree removal for the Extension; we limit discussion here to carbon. i-Tree Canopy also generates data for the benefit trees provide for runoff prevention, and filtration of air and water pollutants.   

Will asphalt provide any of these benefits?

Trees are only a small part of a carbon offset calculation, which was not done for the Extension. Other factors must be considered, such 1.7 miles of asphalt, and associated heat trap.  We’ve all seen the Depot Park lots on weekends, packed with visitors who drive from points distant to use the Minuteman Bikeway for recreation.   Their trips must be reckoned as a climate change accelerator. 

How can this project be seen as a climate win?  

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Tom Kenny
November 5, 2022 9:30 pm

This letter is right on target. The proponents are trying to gaslight us into believing that cutting down trees and paving the trail with asphalt is pro-environment. I don’t have skin in the game either way on this, but it’s exactly this kind of maddening, disingenuous argument that will have me taking a night of my life to go vote against this proposal.

Not to mention that if you actually spend any time on the paved, ten-mile Depot to Alewife trail around rush hour, you will see that there isn’t any higher representation of commuters there than there is on the dirt path from Pine Hill to Springs Rd. at the same time of day. Everyone in town should go to see for themselves. But you’ll have to wait until March – for the next four months the commuting drops close to zero on all of the trails, since it’s pitch dark at rush hour.

– Not Thomas Kenny; there are two of us with the same name.

Tim Bennett
November 7, 2022 4:09 pm
Reply to  Tom Kenny

I love the maddening, disingenuous argument that so many concerned citizens use. The bike path will be so busy and congested as to be unsafe. But also no commuters will actually use it. They want to have it both ways: no environmental benefit because no one will use it and supposed safety risks because everyone will.

Patty Dahlgren
November 5, 2022 7:43 am

BRAVO Molly!

Catherine Van Praagh
November 4, 2022 7:24 pm

I lived on the Bruce Freeman Trail when it was constructed, and I grew up on over 80 acres of woodland under forest management. I can assure you that the canopy loss is temporary. In fact, even during the first year following construction, the extensive canopy that remained around the Bruce Freeman trail still offered significant shade to the trail – which was cool, and lovely. Narrow cuts like the one proposed for the path have the most limited impact on forestland, don’t cause the type of damage caused by clear cutting and select cuts and are generally preferred by environmentally responsible foresters.

I find it ironic that we are holding our *bike trials* to a higher environmental standard than our electric lines, roads and homes, the construction and maintenance of which contribute to enormous amounts of tree loss, use of asphalt and have no hope of offsetting *any* of the associated carbon.

Additionally, if the current trail did not dead end in Bedford, more people could access the trail locally at different points, and it would prevent the need for some of those car trips to the trail head.

Nancy Wolk
November 4, 2022 2:30 pm

If one person bikes to work instead of driving due to the RBT being paved, the carbon offsets given by the EPA show a much different story.

To estimate carbon sequestered (in metric tons of CO2) by additional “average” forestry acres in one year, multiply the number of additional acres by -0.84 metric ton CO2 acre/year.


That’s: 3.6 Metric tons.

Taking the national average: a car releases 4.64 metric tons per year:

CalculationNote: Due to rounding, performing the calculations given in the equations below may not return the exact results shown.
8.89 × 10-3 metric tons CO2/gallon gasoline × 11,520 VMT car/truck average × 1/22.2 miles per gallon car/truck average × 1 CO2, CH4, and N2O/0.994 CO2 = 4.640 metric tons CO2E/vehicle /year


Using the EPA Calculator:

Removing 1 car off the road would be equivalent to 5.4 acres of trees sequestering carbon.

The source above has this large caveat: https://canopy.itreetools.org/references
“This tool is designed to allow users to easily and accurately estimate tree and other cover classes (e.g., grass, building, roads, etc.) within their city or any area they like. This tool randomly lays points (number determined by the user) onto Google Earth imagery and the user then classifies what cover class each point falls upon. The user can define any cover classes that they like and the program will show estimation results throughout the interpretation process. Point data and results can be exported for use in other programs if desired.

There are three steps to this analysis:

  1. Import a file that delimits the boundary of your area of analysis (e.g., city boundary). Some standard boundary files for the US can be located on the US Census website. Data from these sites will require some minor processing in GIS software to select and export a specific boundary area polygon.
  2. Name the cover classes you want to classify (e.g., tree, grass, building). Tree and Non‐Tree are the default classes given, but can be easily changed.
  3. Start classifying each point: points will be located randomly within your boundary file. For each point, the user selects from a dropdown list the class from step 2 that the point falls upon. The more points that are interpreted, the more accurate the estimate.”

I used the canopy tool and could not get the tree cover to be as low as 4.34acres. The numbers I got were for 20 acres. I strongly suspect that the numbers in the LTE are accidentally inflated.

November 4, 2022 2:22 pm

The EPA has a tool for answering these questions too: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator#results

From those calculations, 5.5 acres of carbon sequestration is the equivalent of 11,500 miles per year. You can see different ways of reaching those 11,500 miles per year in the graphic, but that’s where the Select Board is getting the notion that 1 car off the road completely would offset the 4.34 acres of this project.

Thanks to Mothers Out Front for the pointer to the EPA calculator.

Mike Merrick
November 4, 2022 11:03 am

A common sense letter supported by facts that destroys the weak arguments by the other side. In terms of making the trail more accessible to people with disabilities, I am all for that, but clearing the trees, taking private property, and laying asphalt is not the answer. Ask the patients from the VA that use the stonedust path all the way to Billerica. They have no issues getting up and down that area in their wheelchairs. Why not lay stonedust on RBT as well to make it accessible for those with disabilities.

Tim Bennett
November 4, 2022 5:13 pm
Reply to  Mike Merrick

An artificially inflated and patently false letter unsupported by facts that bolsters the strong arguments by the other side. In terms of making the trail more accessible to people with disabilities, I am all for that, and clearing a small number of young trees that will be offset by the number of cyclists commuting, compensating owners for private property the public already uses, and laying asphalt for accessibility is the answer. Ask the patients from the VA that use the stonedust path all the way to Billerica. They have a myriad of issues getting up and down that area in their wheelchairs, especially after adverse weather conditions make it virtually impassable for weeks at a time. Why would we lay stonedust on RBT as well and cost the town millions of dollars in lost state funding?

Leah Devereaux
November 4, 2022 7:02 pm
Reply to  Mike Merrick

My partner in his wheelchair cannot use the RBT safely. Laying stone dust isn’t on the docket and in order to do that we would also have to take the land. Furthermore, there is no accessible wheelchair parking.

Catherine Van Praagh
November 4, 2022 7:37 pm
Reply to  Mike Merrick

The use of asphalt in ADA compliant mixed-use trails is required by the MassDOT, and they will not fund work that does not meet their regulations. Additionally, just because we see someone who can use a certain space, we should not assume that it is “not a problem” or that everyone can do the same. The DOT rules are outlined here: https://www.mass.gov/doc/massdot-design-guide-chapter-11-shared-use-paths-and-greenways/download

Nancy Wolk
November 5, 2022 11:07 am
Reply to  Mike Merrick

The so called facts are not correct. I explain in great detail above why.

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