CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Foresters are trying to ease the loss of about 50,000 acres of Virginia woodland to development each year, especially in urban areas that are being hardest hit.

"Economic development is critical to Virginia and the loss of trees is inevitable," said Candace Allen, the secretary-treasurer of the newly formed Virginia Urban Forest Council. "But we want to try to manage it instead of letting it manage us."

The council, formed by the state Department of Forestry, represents a group of specialists, including city arborists, foresters, nurserymen and horticulturists, who plan to spotlight the importance of urban forests.

An urban forest, though it sounds like a contradiction in terms, is simply the greenery, from street-side trees to parks, that exists in and around towns and cities.

"The first thing we want to do is get citizens and decision-makers aware of the value of urban forests," said Allen, who also is the regional forester in Southampton. "There's a lack of knowledge of the benefit -- societal and environmental -- of trees to towns and cities."

"We want to build on the knowledge and awareness of urban forests," said Peter Feret, the council's president and a professor in the School of Forestry at Virginia Tech. "We're trying to figure out how to increase the level of support for urban forests."

Urban forests lower temperatures in summer and provide windbreaks in winter. Trees also improve air and water quality and make urban area more attractive.

Allen said there is a growing national awareness that "we're losing too many trees; that we're cutting down many more trees in communities than we're planting and that the trees we do have are in poor health."

Feret said Virginia is one of about a dozen states with urban forest councils.

Allen said 12 localities in Virginia have ordinances requiring a certain amount of tree canopy in development projects.

"Economics drive whether developers can leave trees," Allen said. "Education will play a large part in making people understand that trees add value and are not just structures in the way of bulldozers."

James Garner, the state forester responsible for starting the council, said more than 50,000 acres of forest land are removed from commercial timber production in Virginia each year. "The majority of these lands are converted to residential, industrial and commercial development," he said. "Until recently there have been no concerted efforts to mitigate this loss."

Allen said developers need more information on how to plant trees in cities and towns and what species will thrive.