It is that time of year again. For those who live in Marshfield, we can appropriately call these couple months tree removal season.
Two years ago I wrote an op-ed expressing concern over the excessive number of trees the city cuts down annually. My column focused on how I believe the quality of a community can be partially determined by how it values its trees.
The response, in all honesty, was more than I anticipated, and many citizens concurred with my viewpoints. The mayor and some readers took issue with my opinions, voicing the typical refrain of, “I love trees too, but (insert reason to cut them down).”
The mayor said he was proud being part of Arbor Day’s Tree City U.S.A. program and promised road projects involving tree removal would ultimately be a huge improvement and include new trees.
The word “improvement” is subjective, but in my opinion the shaded boulevards with large majestic maples and oaks were far better than the typical replacement: wide ribbons of solid white concrete from lawn to lawn with traffic areas, bike lanes, parking spaces, and generous sidewalks crowding out the possibility of any green space. The difference is night and day.
All in all it seems there are often “really good” reasons to cut down healthy trees. My takeaway from Marshfield’s tree removal decisions in recent years is that city leadership values being considered a “Tree City” far more than it values the actual trees.
The tree-cutting phenomenon is not unique to Marshfield. Last year the city of Medford’s common council took up whether or not it should grant a homeowner a variance to an ordinance restricting trees growing in street right-of-ways. At question was a large oak tree between the road and sidewalk.
The oak tree — as it turned out — was 150 years old with its origins predating those of the city of Medford itself. Generations accommodated the tree, which, according to foresters, was in good health and did not need to be removed. The tree was spared when the road was widened in the 1970s and had a sidewalk routed around it twice. At one point a gas line was even run underneath the tree.
Accommodations for Medford’s ancient oak tree came to an end when the council voted not to allow an exception for the tree, citing the interest of “fairness.” The mayor said if one tree was spared, other residents would likely want to keep their trees also, saying, “If the council agrees to keep that tree, we might as well take the ordinance and throw it out.”
The mayor was being facetious, of course, but I think he hit the nail right on the head. A growing government in an age increasingly reliant on rules and regulation for otherwise basic common sense decision making has painted itself into corners of contradictions and duplicities.
Unfortunately, when it comes to trees, the consequence is that Wisconsin cities and streets are looking less and less green. Photos and postcards depicting Marshfield streetscapes from as recent as 20 years ago speak volumes to this disturbing trend. Trees anywhere close to the age of Medford’s historic old oak have long ago vanished from our streets.
Perhaps ordinances and regulations that require destroying monuments of natural history beyond our years should be crumpled up as Medford’s mayor jokingly suggested. Where are the ordinances protecting and ensuring that future generations are left with these irreplaceable aesthetic keepsakes we inherited?
According to city documents, Marshfield’s 2016 forestry plan called for cutting down 267 trees in city terraces — compared with its intention to plant 36 trees. Of course, new trees planted by the city are often ornamental varieties of dogwoods, serviceberries, and flowering crabs, varieties which are not bred to grow large or tall. Even if trees were being replaced in similar numbers to those cut, the new trees will never be capable of the shade and awe-inspiring aesthetics found in the stately oak, maple, linden, elm, ash, and catalpa trees they would replace. Many of these large, veteran trees took generations to become established along city streets.
Spring is now here, and those chainsaws, wood chippers, and stump grinders are again humming. Small armies of city crews converge on their quarry: trees of all ages and species along Marshfield roadways, even the healthy ones. Workers select and attack their prey in a seemingly random fashion. Is further deforesting of once tree-lined boulevards really a cost we are willing to pay to keep city crews busy?
In 2015 the city of Marshfield spent $92,000 on tree removal.
As the old saying goes, “You can’t fight city hall.” You can however, voice your concerns with elected officials. Encourage them to do what is best for the future. I would also suggest citizens contact Arbor Day, sponsor of the Tree City U.S.A. program. Let them know how you think your community values its trees, particularly the old, big ones.