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Can People Learn to Live with Trees?

Published on
11 May 2012

karth 310_north_from_drive_110810_300x225It seems that local trees have been in the news a lot this year. And it looks like the trees are often losing to “progress” or “infrastructure.”

Here are just a few of the items I’ve heard about recently:

Utilities wanting greater power to remove trees if they think they are a potential problem.

Illinois’ State Rep from Marengo introduced legislation last fall that proposed giving electric utilities the ability to remove any tree that they deemed a potential problem if it were within 20 feet of one of their power lines. If the bill had passed, utilities would have been able to remove trees on private property, and it would have been a crime for the homeowner to interfere.

My response: Okay, the whole proposal was an enormous give away to the power companies. In communities where power lines run through back yards, it could have resulted in the removal of thousands of trees, forever changing the character of communities, in addition to increasing stormwater run off and reducing property values. The reason for the legislation was to reduce prolonged power outages due to downed power lines following storms. If the utilities really wanted to reduce power outages, they would bury the lines instead of removing the trees.

IDOT taking down “hazardous” trees along their routes.

You may have noticed that quite a few trees came down this spring along Route 120 between Woodstock and McHenry, and Route 23 between Marengo and Harvard. This work was commissioned by the Illinois Department of Transportation as part of their regular maintenance. Trees in the right-of-way that were dead or leaning over the road were marked and then removed to prevent them from one-day falling on someone.

My response: IDOT is well within their rights to do this, and their intentions are good. I just wish they didn’t view the trees that are located in the right of way as “their” trees, and I wish there were some requirement that the public be notified when a project like that is proposed. The trees do not belong to the state, they belong to the residents of Illinois, and it seems the public should receive some notice before our trees are removed.

Municipalities proposing to remove many large, old trees to rebuild roads, put in sidewalks and/or install stormsewers.

Recent proposals in Algonquin, along Fleming Road, and Alden Road between rural Woodstock and the Wisconsin state line, all gained public notice in large part because so many large, old trees were proposed to be removed. To some people, if a tree is located in the public right of way, and the road authority wants to widen or “improve” the road with curbs and stormsewers, those trees are just in the way.

My response: There seems to be a general lack of understanding that trees are an important part of a community’s infrastructure. They reduce stormwater run-off, clean the air, enhance property values, reduce the “heat island” effect in urban and suburban areas, provide habitat for birds and insects, and are generally good for our mental and physical health and well-being. Yet, rather than factoring tree preservation in to built infrastructure plans from the beginning, it seems that road authorities and local communities view even historic trees as just something to be removed if they are in the way. While sometimes there are provisions made to plant replacement trees, a 2″ diameter tree is going to take a generation or more before it provides the benefits to the community that a 150 year-old bur oak provides.

Farmers removing fence row trees and tearing off tree branches that overhang their fields, all to get a few more rows of corn.

With corn and soybean prices at record high levels, we have been seeing some really aggressive tree removal by farmers who have a strong financial incentive to plant a few more rows of corn (or beans). In several cases, entire fence rows have been removed and burned. 150+ year old oak groves have been cut down and the stumps grubbed out to open up less than an additional acre of farmland. Some farmers have even used equipment to rip the branches off of neighbors trees if those branches overhang the farm field – otherwise the ginormous equipment used these days won’t fit.

My response: Back in the day, farmers wanted to have diversified operations and land holdings that typically included a wood lot to provide fire wood, timber, grazing for the cattle in summer, etc. They also left large trees in the middle of fields to provide shady spots where they could stop and have lunch during the middle of a hot summer day. Now, many farmers don’t even own the land they farm, and their only goal is getting as much income off the land as possible. Besides that, the combines and planting equipment have enclosed cabs with airconditioning these days, so there is no need to sit in the shade for lunch! A family’s farm was their home back in the day, so most families tried to be good stewards of the land resources to be sure the next generation would be able to make a living there too. Today, land is seen as a commodity – something to be bought and sold. Something to wring the most money from today without a thought given to the next generation.

Some highway officials believe that shade from trees damages road asphalt.

There is a rumor that has been passed along for a few years now that says tree shade damages asphalt roads because it prevents them from drying following a rain storm. So, some road departments are getting rid of the road-shading trees. In the most obnoxious cases, road agencies have removed every tree branch that is overhanging a road, severing the branches in the middle rather than pruning them back to the trunk.

My response: This is a rumor based on partial information. This is one of the most dangerous kinds of rumors, because once acted upon, it is impossible to undo the damage done. Namely, once a tree has been damaged through irresponsible cutting of limbs, or removed entirely, it is ruined or gone forever. There is a kernel of truth in the rumor, as is often the case, but it isn’t the whole story. Water on asphalt does damage the road surface, so the thinking is that anything that prevents the water from leaving quickly is bad. Thus, shade from trees becomes bad since it prevents the water on roads from evaporating as quickly as it would in direct sun. What this story omits, however is that branches overhanging roads actually reduce the amount of rainfall that strikes the road. That’s right, the tree leaves catch a good amount of the water, especially during a light rain, so the road actually may stay dry under the tree. The tree leaves also catch and slow the rainfall, which further reduces the direct impact of rain on asphalt. Plus, shade is only a factor on a sunny day after a rainfall. What happens when it rains at night? Trees or not, there is no sunlight hitting the road during the night. Additionally, trees only generate meaningful shade during the growing season – typically May-October in our area. That means for half of the year, shade from trees is a non-issue.

All this is a long way of saying that I wish more people would view trees as important cultural, historic, infrastructure, aesthetic and community resources, and do more to think about the ways trees contribute to our health and general well-being as a society, and stop viewing them as obstacles to be removed. In some cases they were here long before we were – and if we take care of them, they could be here long after we are gone.

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