Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who Speaks for the Trees?

The photos above are of city workers taking down a tree on a cross-street about 100 feet from our house. Earlier this spring they cut down a tree in front of our next-door neighbor’s, without any notification to the homeowner from the city that they were going to do it. When it comes to cutting down “street trees” in the city of Quincy, Mass., there is no notification rule, no public process. Earlier still, some time in late winter, two large maples were summarily executed on our street, two blocks down. There was nothing apparently wrong with these trees. We have walked or driven past them hundreds of times. An examination of the trunks left behind showed no sign of disease or rot. Somebody wanted them cut down, but when my wife asked for the reason, no one could tell her anthing beyond that they “were on the list.” Nobody could produce the list. If you don’t have a rule to follow, a legitimate public process, you can do whatever you want and no one can call you to account. Trees are not people, of course, but when it comes to an old neighborhood in an old city, like ours, our big shade trees are arguably more important than we are. People come and go; “new” residents like ourselves, though we are in our eighth year, move in because the street “looks nice.” It’s the trees that preserve the character of the neighborhood. Its “livability.” Drive though a city or town neighborhood, any place where the houses are within shouting distance of one another. Ask yourself whether you could imagine living there or not. If you say yes, I suspect you’ll find some trees in the picture. If the answer is no, if the place looks cold, unfriendly, unhappy, or even “rough,” chances are the trees are gone. There were probably at least some trees on these streets at one point, but they’re gone now, lost to neglect, accidents, untreated disease, civic difference. Nobody replanted. Big, old shade trees need care. Diseases come and they need care, pruning, treatment, as people do. If a tree can’t be saved and presents a danger, obviously it needs to be removed before it falls on a house or a car or a person. But whenever a neighborhood loses an old tree, it loses a benefit that cannot be easily replaced. New trees should be planted to replace the lost ones, but it will be decades before they replace the shade, the cooling, the air-cleansing quality the big ones provide. Trees, big ones especially, eat greenhouse gases. Urban areas are filled with pavement. Pavement creates “heat islands,” raising temperatures, and tempers, reflecting car exhaust and other forms of pollution. Only healthy green space combats the asphalt junge effect. Every leaf on every tree is green space. The city workers cutting down the tree in the photo said this tree was too diseased to save. I saw the rot in the trunk, it was considerable, but whether the tree was salvageable or not, or would have been ten or twenty years ago if the city had been paying attention, is something I can’t say. The man in charge said he was an arborist. I’m not. I don’t have the expertise to challenge his judgment. But cutting down a big, old street tree is not like throwing away the garbage. It’s more like pulling the plug on a relative. That’s why state law requires a public hearing, a requirement evaded or ignored in this and I suspect other communities. A public process including notification would help, but I’m not sure even that goes far enough. We need people who know more about trees than I or most residents do. We need a Speaker for the Trees.