Tree Preservation Comes to the City

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Paradoxically, a century of development has turned vast areas of prairie and desert into large urban forests. In Dallas, where once there was an open prairie interrupted by the occasional tree-lined creek or river, there are now about 213,000 wooded acres, far more than existed historically-and all of this without government restrictions on private property. Across the nation there are more trees now than existed 100 years ago.

Urban forests provide open space and improve the drainage efficiency of land, thereby reducing the effects of soil erosion. Trees remove pollutants from the air, and provide shade and windbreaks. Studies have found urban temperatures are as much as 11 degrees lower in shaded areas than in less wooded areas. At a time when environmental concern is high, the benefits of urban forests can hardly be doubted.

Developers recognize the value of leaving trees up. Dallas' chief arborist has pointed out that developers have long planted more trees in cities than governments, citizens or private groups. Residential developers who leave trees on their land benefit from higher land values and lower landscaping costs.

Despite these facts, a new type of tree activisim has sprouted in America's cities. Tree preservation conflicts and ordinances are increasing nationwide. For example, a series of protests by tree preservationists persuaded hospital officials in Dallas to build a new power plant around older trees- despite the fact that the hospital had already satisfied the requirements of Dallas' tree ordinance. In University Park, an affluent suburb of Dallas, residents used their cars to blockade two pecan trees that were to be felled for a new driveway. For the sake of peace, the homeowner has agreed to temporarily halt the saws-meanwhile the neighbors lobby the city to pass a tree ordinance.

While the city council of Allen, Texas debated imposing a tree preservation ordinance, one developer cleared several hundred acres of trees from his land. Others also rushed to cut trees that they feared they would not be able to remove once the law passed. The ordinance passed, but, at least initially, it had the opposite of its intended effect because it is unlikely that landowners would have clear-cut their land absent the impending ordinance.

The Dallas area is not unique. New York, Chicago, Austin, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia all have tree preservation and/or replacement ordinances. A 1984 study found fewer than 100 tree preservation ordinances nationwide. By 1989, there were 159 tree ordinances in California alone. Maryland requires all counties and municipalities to enact their own tree ordinances at least as stringent as the state's own strict act.

Tree ordinances come in all shapes and sizes. In some cities, they only affect commercial development. In others, even individual homeowners and farmers must now get government permission before felling trees. Ordinance violators often face hefty fines (in Dallas, up to $2,000 a day until trees that are removed are replaced or money is paid into the city's reforestation fund).

Persons wishing to remove trees usually have to pay a fee. Ordinances often require that trees be replaced on an inch-by-inch basis. For instance, if a developer removes a tree with a ten inch girth, then he must replace it with one or several trees with girths adding up to ten inches. Some cities require landowners to plant trees on their land as a condition of development, even if no trees previously existed on the property. In many cities, tree mandarins decide which trees are "good" and which are "bad." Cottonwoods and sycamores are on the "Undesirable" list in some areas, meaning that, regardless of their aesthetic and soil retention qualities, one can't plant them or leave them standing to satisfy tree mitigation requirements.

As the United States was settled, among the first acts of homesteaders was to cut trees for shelter, heat and in order to farm. Trees were property, and landowners could leave them standing or cut them down at will.

Admittedly, we are a long way from our homesteading roots. We now realize that trees are often more valuable left standing than as timber. Tree preservation is a noble goal. But as with any worthwhile pursuit, there are wrong ways and a right ways to reach the desired end.

Trees provide public benefits. If citizens want trees preserved or replaced, then they should have to pay for it. Private property rights should not be violated to satisfy the public's desire for "no net loss of woodlands."

Removing trees does not usually involve injury to either persons or property. Accordingly, non-coercive means, not prohibitive legislation, should be used to preserve trees. Private organizations could spend the money they now use lobbying for tree ordinances to pay landowners not to cut trees. Cities could pay bounties or provide tax relief to landowners who came up with creative ways to preserve the trees. Cities and citizens could embark on tree planting programs. These options would probably do as much to protect trees as current mandates. But they would do so with less acrimony and in a manner more fitting to our country's heritage of individual liberty, private property rights and community cooperation.

A modified version of this op-ed appeared in USA TODAY, September 10, 1996.