In many cities throughout the U.S., the local city governments still own some of the trees which are located on private residential as well as commercial properties. Scott Benowitz re-examines laws about ownership of trees on private properties.
I wrote a series of three articles which had appeared in our July 17th, 2016 issue, our July 24th, 2016 issue and our July 31st, 2016 issue about blue laws which have never been removed from the legal codes throughout the U.S. These are mostly obsolete laws, some of which were relevant in earlier centuries, and some of which are difficult to believe ever made any sense at all to begin with, which have been forgotten about, so they’ve never been officially removed from the legal codes. I want to focus on one particular series of laws which still appear in a number of municipalities. When you purchase a house or an office building, you own the house or the buildings, you own the lawn, but you do not own some of the trees located on your own property.
Where did the laws about ownership of trees originate from?
Many of these laws date back to the 1930’s. Back in the 1930’s, climatologists, biologists, and foresters were first beginning to fully understand the roles that trees play in balancing ecosystems, as well as contributing to soil retention. Many of the trees that are now located on private properties in towns and cities throughout the U.S. were planted as parts of WPA projects and other various New Deal projects during the depression era.
Back then, people were first beginning to understand how industrialization and large factories were contributing to air pollution and how trees were filtering out contaminants and particles in the air. However, a lot has changed since the 1930’s. We now have very advanced clean air and water standards, and factories and vehicles have to adhere to strict emissions standards. There is also a lot more forest land which has been added to state forests, state parks, national forests, national parks and numerous local parks since the 1930’s, most (though not all) of which is protected from commercial logging.
We obviously still need to keep all ecosystems healthy and balanced, and that’s why most of the trees which are located in state forests, state parks, national forests, national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges as well as in city and county parks are protected. Although precise numbers are not available because there’s no database which lists the numbers of city and town-owned trees that are located on private properties, I suspect that if city and town governments ever opt to relinquish ownership on private properties, and they decide to give ownership including the ability to decide to have those trees cut down to the people who own the properties that those trees are located on, the effects on ecosystems, air, and water quality will be negligible. Why are laws relevant? In cities in which the local governments retain ownership of some of the trees which are located on private properties, the local governments perform all of the routine maintenance on those trees.
Workers from the local departments of public works (or comparable agencies) apply fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers to those trees when needed, and they also remove dead and dying branches. In some cities, property owners aren’t permitted to perform any maintenance on trees which are located on their own properties, and people can get fined for removing branches from trees which are located on their own properties if those trees are owned by the cities.
Many property owners throughout the U.S. are quite pleased with this system. People who own properties in the cities and towns in which the local governments retain ownership of some of the trees which are located on private properties don’t need to spend any of their own time or funds maintaining the health of some of the trees which are located on our own properties because our local governments will do this for them. However, whenever there is a recession or a financial crisis, such as the recent “Great Recession” of 2008- 2012 for example, all government agencies throughout the U.S. are impacted. We all begin to see very quickly that the administrators in all governments and all government agencies throughout the U.S. need to figure out how to accomplish all of the tasks that they’ll need to accomplish with smaller budgets during periods of recession as well as in the years following a recession.
Do we really still want our local governments to be using our tax dollars to pay for the maintenance on trees which are located on private properties?
If a local town, village, and city governments are willing to consider relinquishing ownership of trees which are located on private properties and to turn the ownership over to the property owners, then property owners will obviously have to pay for the routine maintenance of those trees. However, this will free up resources within the city public works departments. The personnel and the equipment which are now being used to maintain trees which are located on private properties will be available to work on other projects. And as we saw in the recent Great Recession of 2008- 2012, city government agencies need to make the most efficient possible use of every available cent.
Telephone and electricity wires
In most of the U.S., the electricity and the telephone companies own the utility poles and all of the overhead wires, so they’re responsible for cutting all of the tree branches which grow too close to the overhead telecommunications and electricity lines. However, cutting tree branches which grow potentially dangerously close to the lead lines which run from the utility poles into the Weatherhead connections in peoples’ homes is the responsibility of the property owners. Cutting branches which are owned by the property owners is simple- the property owners either remove the branches themselves or they hire tree surgeons to remove them. However, removing branches from trees which are owned by the cities, but are located on private properties is not so simple. By law, property owners need to contact their local departments of public works when branches from trees that are owned by the cities need to be cut back. In instances in which local departments of public works have lengthy backlogs of work, some projects can become delayed, and some people can end up waiting for weeks, or even months for city departments of public works to remove branches from trees which are becoming entangled in telephone or electricity service drop lines, because the property owners are not permitted to remove those branches themselves if some of the trees which are located on their properties are owned by their local city governments.
The great plains shelterbelt
As I’d mentioned earlier, many of the trees throughout the U.S. which are located on private properties which are owned by local city governments were planted during the 1930’s. Scientists who had been studying the causes of the Dust Bowl had realized that constructing lengthy belts of trees stretching from Texas through North Dakota would prevent soil erosion as well as buffer severe winds, and so the Civilian Conservation Corps and the U.S. Forest Service constructed the Great Plains Shelterbelt of trees from 1935 through 1942. The Great Plains Shelterbelt did in fact successfully contribute to preventing soil erosion in the affected areas. The technologies which are used in commercial agriculture today are far more advanced than the technologies which had been used during the 1930’s. The technologies which are used to irrigate soil on commercial farms is notably more sophisticated than the equipment which had been available to farmers during the 1930’s, so it is highly unlikely that dust storms comparable to those which had been commonplace during the dust bowl era will occur in the plains states today. However quite a few very severe tornadoes do still occur each year throughout the plains states, so vast stretches of trees are still needed to buffer severe winds. Today in the second decade of the 21st century, many of the trees which were planted during the 1930’s as part of the Great Plains Shelterbelt are located on land which is now part of public parks, but approximately 220 million trees were planted as part of the Great Plains Shelterbelt, and today, many of those trees are now located on private residential and commercial properties. If local governments throughout the U.S. are willing to consider relinquishing ownership of trees which are located on privately owned lands, and they are willing to turn the ownership over to the people who own the properties which the trees are located on, we’ll need to be particularly careful regarding trees which are still needed to buffer winds in areas which experience the most severe tornadoes. Perhaps the Federal Natural Resources Conservation Service could work with local governments to determine specifically which trees need to be preserved.
A green perspective on this issue
People who have read some of the articles that I’d written for The Pavlovic Today will know that I like to write articles in which I advocate for green technologies and environmental issues, and so some readers may be surprised that I’m now writing an article in which I’m advocating for the decisions about cutting down trees to be removed from city arborists and to be placed into the hands of property owners. However, this would not be environmentally destructive at all. Unless a tree is infected with a fungus or with insects, the companies that remove trees from private properties send the wood to companies which sell firewood, or to companies which chip them into bark chips which are used for lining footpaths and for garden mulch. None of the wood is ever wasted when a tree is removed, so if the laws regarding ownership do ever change, and some people do opt to have trees professionally removed from their own properties, this would enable them to be preserved elsewhere.