Dakota Gardener: What's a tree worth? How about a forest?

Joe Zeleznik
NDSU Extension Forester

Let’s do a little mental exercise today.

How do we put a price tag on a tree that’s growing in our yard? A boulevard tree in the community? What about a windbreak? How do we determine the value of anything?

I’m sure that my economist friends could give me technical answers about the complicated techniques involved in valuing a product or a service, or even how intrinsic value might be determined. But let’s keep it simple.

What is a tree worth?

In traditional forestry, trees often are viewed in terms of the amount of lumber that can be harvested from the stems. How many 2-by-4s can we saw from a ponderosa pine that’s 80 feet tall and 28 inches in diameter? The techniques for these types of calculations are well-developed and surprisingly straightforward.

But not a whole lot of timber is being harvested on the prairie.

So what do we do now? Let’s look at services. What does a tree provide us?

On a bigger scale, what services do forests provide? We can make a list: shade, wind protection, pollution abatement, water control. Surprisingly, putting a value on those services is pretty easy. Putting a value on other services such as oxygen production, wildlife habitat or improvement of mental health is harder.

An individual tree, in the right location, can lower summer air conditioning costs by up to 30% (U.S. Forest Service). That’s the equivalent of 10 room-size air conditioners running 20 hours a day! Windbreaks can lower winter heating costs on the farmstead by as much as 40% (U.S. Department of Energy). And those savings accumulate year after year, and even increase as the trees get bigger.

One study by the U.S. Forest Service showed that municipal trees in Bismarck, N.D. — those managed by the city — provide nearly a half-million dollars each year in stormwater reduction. And that’s just the public trees; it doesn’t include the services provided by trees on private property. For every dollar that Bismarck spends on its urban forestry program, the city reaps more than $3 in benefits.

Windbreaks, in the right locations, can serve as living snow fences. These plantings protect interstates and state highways in many areas of North Dakota. Living snow fences reduce drifting on roadways, increasing safety and reducing the need to plow out those areas following big snowstorms. How much is that worth? I’ve heard that the Department of Transportation can push snow for dollars per ton, or they can store it for pennies per ton by using living snow fences.

The list goes on: livestock protection in winter, taking up carbon dioxide via photosynthesis, lowering dust in the air, oxygen production. We’re working on a study at NDSU to determine the early season effects of shelterbelts on honeybees. I’m looking forward to finding the results.

What’s a tree worth? A lot, depending on where it’s located and what products or services it provides us. What’s a forest worth? More than just the trees.

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county in North Dakota at

An Ohio buckeye provides beautiful fall colors and shading in a sitting area on the NDSU campus.