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Charlotte says tree canopy is still shrinking, but at a slower rate

The city of Charlotte said it lost about 1,000 acres of tree canopy from 2018 to 2022.
City of Charlotte
The city of Charlotte said it lost about 1,000 acres of tree canopy from 2018 to 2022.

The city of Charlotte said Monday its tree canopy declined slightly over the last four years as developers of new homes and other buildings cut down trees.

But officials say efforts to plant new trees are helping slow down the rate of loss.

In 2018, a new study found 47.8% of Charlotte was covered by a tree canopy. That fell to 47.3% in 2022. That’s a loss of nearly 1,000 acres of trees, according to a study conducted by the city and the nonprofit group Trees Charlotte.

An earlier study covering 2012 to 2018 found the canopy-covered area in Charlotte was 45%; it wasn't immediately clear what's responsible for the discrepancy.

Charlotte planning director Alyson Craig told City Council that the city’s efforts to plant new trees are slowing the rate of loss.

“We can attribute this to canopy growth and to planting and preservation,” she said. “However, the study does say that tree canopy is still declining and on our current path we can not reach our 50 by 50 goal.”

That goal calls for 50% of the county to be covered by trees by 2050. But at the current rate of loss, the city would only have a 40% canopy then.

Staff pointed out that Charlotte still has more tree cover than Austin, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

The city has a general rule that requires developers to preserve 15% of the trees on land they are developing. However, developers are allowed to pay mitigation fees if they cut down more trees. The city uses that money to plant trees elsewhere. It also buys existing wooded tracts.

Charlotte has collected more than $13 million in those fees over the last decade.

City Council member Renee Johnson said council members need more information on where trees are being lost when they decide whether to approve new development.

“I’d like to see what districts or what areas should we consider this canopy loss as we’re considering the rezonings,” she said.

The study identified residential neighborhoods — which cover most of Charlotte — as accounting for the largest amount of tree canopy loss since 2018. Those areas lost a net 700 acres of tree canopy cover.

Staff also said that because technology has improved considerably, the city is set up for better, more regular "apples-to-apples" comparisons going forward. The tree canopy studies, which occur only once every five or six years, have left city leaders with snapshots in time but little intermediate data as Charlotte grows rapidly.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the canopy coverage figure applied to Mecklenburg County, rather than the city of Charlotte.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.