Over the past decade, Wake County lost 11,120 acres of trees — equivalent to 2,700 Walmart stores

Areas in the Jordan Lake watershed lost 15% of their tree canopy

By: - September 7, 2023 5:55 am
the top of an oak tree seen from below

Some of Wake County’s oldest oak trees provide a canopy over Nash Square in downtown Raleigh (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

On the northern edge of downtown Raleigh, Capital Boulevard is a parched and treeless hellscape where the sun wilts all who dare to cut through its parking lots.

New Bern Avenue, east of WakeMed toward Knightdale, is an endless steppe of pavement where people waiting for the No. 15 bus crowd under mangy crepe myrtles, seeking relief from the heat.

Now visit Forest (formerly Cameron) Park, a historic neighborhood near N.C. State: The oaks are old, their crowns wide, and at summer’s peak, their shade drops the air temperature by about five degrees.

These disparities, and the loss of 11,120 acres Wake County’s tree cover, were detailed in a “Land Cover Analysis & Tree Canopy Assessment” published Tuesday. The county had hired a consultant to measure and identify the changes in landscape from 2010 to 2020.

During that decade, when the county grew at more than twice the North Carolina rate, it had to make room for all 1.15 million people who wanted to live inside its borders. Consequently, the assessment reads, “the county is experiencing a conversion of open spaces, natural areas and agricultural land into built environments at a similarly rapid rate.”

In other words, to carve out space, real estate developers had to cut trees.

Trees in Wake County:

More than two-thirds are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall and winter.

The other third are conifers — pines.

Each year they benefit the environment and public health by:

  • removing 11.022 tons of pollutants from the air
  • absorbing 414,710 tons of carbon dioxide
  • intercepting 8.1 billion gallons of stormwater


While most of Wake County’s census block groups lost tree canopy – about 3% each year, overall – that deficit was not equally distributed. Data show that underserved communities, like those along New Bern Avenue in east Raleigh, already tend to have fewer trees and more concrete. These census tracts contain on average 6.2% less tree canopy cover and 10.4% more “impervious surface” – buildings, parking lots, streets – that don’t absorb water.

Without trees to remove air pollution and shade their homes, residents of these urban heat islands are beset by environmental and public health burdens: poor air quality, a higher risk of heat-related illness, higher energy bills and even, the assessment noted, damage to roads and homes because of “thermal expansion and contraction.” 

In Raleigh, tree loss was especially acute in northeastern and southeastern parts of the city, where growth and development are widespread. Half of the entire city lacks a tree canopy.

This map shows high-poverty areas that are considered “qualified census tracts” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. These tracts have more pavement and fewer trees than their higher-wealth counterparts. (Map: Lisa Sorg, based on data from the county assessment)

To offset these losses, the assessment recommends planting trees. The consultants identified more than 2.8 million individual sites; more than half were suitable for large-growing trees.

Nearly 370,000 sites were suitable for medium-growing trees, and another 969,000 were well-suited for small-growing varieties.

The assessment also advised planting trees wherever possible in the vulnerable neighborhoods, based on a composite score of 10 factors, such as air quality, asthma rates, social equity heat islands and mental health.

These “potential planting areas” were then prioritized based on that composite vulnerability index. The assessment found more than 23,000 acres could be planted in areas designated as “very high” or “high” priority. This figure equals 161,800 planting areas.

Tree-planting opportunities were also present in areas with very low, low and moderate vulnerability: 243,000 planting areas, equivalent to 58,580 acres.

In areas outside the state capital, Morrisville, with its strip malls and parking lots, has the least tree canopy – just 33.7% of its 6,307 acres. And some of the most environmentally sensitive parts of Wake County also were partially denuded: far west, near the Chatham County line and within the Jordan Lake watershed. There, rapid housing and population growth combined to decrease the tree canopy by 15.5% from 2010 to 2020.

The loss in the Jordan Lake watershed is notable and troubling. Trees help mitigate flooding and filter pollutants, such as fertilizers, that could degrade water quality in the lake — a drinking water supply for more than a million people in the region — and its tributaries.

More data from the assessment:

  • Of the existing trees, 51% are in good or very good condition.
  • 29% rated fair.
  • And 18.6% are in poor or critical condition.
  • Countywide, tree canopy comprises 54.2% of the land cover — 297,242 acres.
  • Vegetation, such as shrubs and grasses make up 23.3%, or 127,926 acres.
  • Impervious surface — paved or built areas — covers 81,702 acres, or nearly 15% of the county.
  • A smaller proportion of the county — 22,692 acres, or 4.1%, is classified as bare soil — vacant lots, construction sites, agricultural fields and baseball infields.
  • And open water, such as Lake Crabtree, Falls Lake, Jordan Lake and Lake Johnson, makes up 3.4% of the county, or 18,776 acres.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.