Majestic Trees Are Being Clear-Cut in American Suburbs


Mature trees in residential areas are beautiful, good for the environment—and in grave danger of being cut down. In places without protective ordinances, homebuilders routinely remove every tree or nearly every tree on a property when they build on it for the first time or replace a torn-down house with a new one. Even trees that are on the edge of a property, far from the footprint of the new house, are at risk of removal.

Even if you aren’t a tree-hugger, it’s hard not to feel your stomach churn when big, healthy trees are reduced to stumps. It also seems financially nonsensical. Handsome trees canraise thesales price of a house; the Council of Tree & Landscape Appraisers even has a formula [PDF] for how much trees are worth. Most species of oaks, maples, beeches, dogwoods, spruces, and firs earn top scores, while many pines, ashes, willows, poplars, mulberries, and locusts are deemed of relatively little value. 

Trees provide shade that reduces air-conditioning bills. They also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, slowing climate change. They can prevent erosion and provide a habitat for birds and other creatures. 

So why the clear-cutting? Money, of course. For homebuilders, trees are a nuisance. To keep a tree alive while building on a lot, they have to keep heavy equipment far away so they don’t compact the soil above its roots. They also can’t push soil up around the trunk. Preserving trees means keeping the topography of the lot unchanged, which often doesn’t fit their plans. 

And even though trees can add to a home’s value, plenty of homebuyers like the clean look of a wide-open lawn, perhaps with a few freshly planted ornamental trees for decoration. Buyers have no sentimental attachment to the trees that were there before they came. Some fear that a big tree will fall on the house in a windstorm—which of course does sometimes happen.

And so the battles rage. The city government of Tampa is battling the state government over a 2019 state law that prohibits municipalities from requiring permits for homeowners to remove trees that arereported as dangerous by an arborist or landscape architect. The Tampa Bay Times reported Nov. 27 that a local tree-cutter isappealing a $234,427.50 fine imposed by the city for the permit-less clear-cutting of more than two dozen trees in a trailer park. 

“A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things,” Richard Powers writes in The Overstory, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. “It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”



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