Cutting Down Trees - Is It Good or Bad?
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Cutting Down Trees - Is It Good or Bad?

This article was written as a response to the question: Do You Think The Cutting Of Trees Should Be Banned By Law?
Cutting down old mature trees can be done in very little time, but once cut it will take decades to replace. Shouldn't the decision to cut down any tree be given due consideration?
  No one likes to see trees cut down, especially for no good reason. Though cutting is necessary at times for public safety. Some cringe at the idea of cutting down any tree. This is usually due to a philosophical precept formed through a combination of family background, education and association. But if we never cut down trees, how could we get the fuel and fiber we need to provide warmth, shelter and the thousands of other products derived from trees? 

     At times, a decision to cut down a tree can changed, when unforeseen, negative consequences of cutting it down become apparent. Perhaps a historical value previously unknown, is discovered and now must be included in the decision making process. Or a legitimate environmental issue comes to light and may call for a change of plans. So many factors must be weighed before going ahead with tree felling. Doing this can prevent a  tree removal and then realizing it was a mistake. For example, a local timber owner decided to put in a golf course. The chosen site had over a hundred acres of mature maples; alders; cedars; firs and hemlocks. Wise development would have called for strategic cutting of the unwanted trees. Instead, a poorly thought out decision was made to clear cut everything and start from scratch. All permits and regulations required by the Department of Natural Resources were followed. The result, irreplaceable mature landscape trees were lost, and would now be replaced by inferior nursery stock, with the additional cost of untold thousands of dollars. Also, the replacements will never develop the character and hardiness of the natural native grown trees.  A little more time spent in the planning stage could have averted this costly mistake. Even the involvement of the DNR foresters didn't help in this case. After all the "rules and regulations" were followed. A simple fact  was ignored - century old trees are not easily replaced and and are often more valuable when left in place. Careful consideration of the intrinsic value of the established trees would have saved this developer thousands of dollars. The conclusion -  Always think before doing something that cannot be undone.

     There are always reasons, sometimes good , sometimes bad for cutting down trees. Perhaps a family needs fire wood to fight off the winter cold, this is a good reason. Or maybe you get a new neighbor and he demands you cut down the old oak tree on your property. He doesn't care that it was planted by your grandfather and has great sentimental value to you. He just wants a better view to impress his boss who will be visiting for the weekend. This is, obviously a bad reason.

     The above "bad neighbor" scenario shouldn't come as a surprise. Recently I observed a row of fir trees that were dying.  On closer inspection they were all  girdled. (Girdling a tree involves making a cut through the cambium layer all around the circumference of a tree. This effectively cuts off the flow of nutrients and kills the tree. This method is often used by the Forest Service to create snags.) In this case we surmised one of the neighbors had become agitated at the fir needles falling on their property and possibly clogging up their down spouts. So they decided to kill the trees. There were about fifteen trees involved. The gentleman who owned the property had inherited it from his father, who battled dementia in his old age. So the unneighborly neighbors must have felt him an easy target for this type of selfish vandalism.  In periodic news reports this is, sadly, not uncommon. Trees have been cut down or illegally topped from neighboring lots and properties, just so views can be improved, and of course property values increased. The culprits are seldom caught and the innocent owner bears the cost of clean up and the loss of valuable trees.

   A property owner may decide to eliminate a tree because of excessive leaf fall or a perceived safety issue. For example a family moved into our area and was thrilled to find a house surrounded by several mature fir and pine trees. However, after a couple of years, they realized that "Douglas" firs, and pines make poor lawn trees. A height of 120 feet or more in an urban setting is not unusual or rare, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Tall firs frequently topple in the fierce wind storms common to NW winters. High winds cause another hazard - falling limbs. (Called "widow makers" by loggers.) For the family mentioned above, a dislodged limb falling on one of their cars was the catalyst needed to start getting bids from local tree companies. The dad wisely concluded that if a limb could seriously damage the family car, (which it did)  what could one do to one of the kids. Of course the damage to the families finances was another matter. Large trees surrounding a house are, dangerous to remove, and require the services of highly skilled, experienced workers. Not something which can be done cheaply.

    Though several thousands of dollars poorer, at least this family will have restful sleep. Mom and dad no longer worry every time the wind blows or an ice storm hits. Plus, no more fir and pine needles, clogging the gutters, getting tracked into the house and vehicles. Reduction of fire danger around the house was and added bonus, though it wasn't a consideration in taking down the trees.

     In some rural areas a home owner can manage trees as he or she sees fit. As with the above situation.  But this is the exception and not the rule. Many new property owners are surprised by the restrictions, regulations and permits associated with the removal of trees, even on their own property. Some jurisdictions require a consultation with a forester or arborist.  Even if you think a tree may be hazardous and should be cut down, the city/county's representative will often disagree. His argument could include the following question: You did buy the property with the tree or trees on it. If it wasn't an issue then, why is it an issue now? And you should have known that the adopted city/county urban forest program governs how you may or may not manage your trees. You considered all of that before buying the property, didn't you?

     Even when the urban forest manager agrees with your decision to remove a tree, there may still be obstacles. Many times a decision to remove a tree can result in legal and emotional battles with neighbors or "anti" tree cutting groups. Sometimes a tree or group of trees on your property, may have a sentimental value to the local community. An attachment, that you,  a new comer, may find hard to understand. So any one buying a new home with a mature tree(s) on the property, should take a little time and become acquainted with any "tree" issues that might arise.  Although a realtor may sell the value of large, well established trees in the landscape. They will seldom point out the problems that may be involved. These could include, damage caused by roots to foundations, driveways, slabs and septic systems.  Unhealthy trees, weakened by rot, that could cause the tree, or large limbs, to fall unexpectedly, damaging property or causing injury. If you are unsure, why not hire an arborist or forester to help you evaluate the trees and any problems they may cause after you purchase the property.

     Another consideration is trees on neighboring property? Will they present unwanted impacts on your side of the fence? How about fall leaf cleanup? Falling fir needles can be a mess, they are very hard to vacuum up when stuck in car mats or carpeting in your home. Can you live with it? What about hazards from your neighbor's trees. A hundred foot tall fir tree, fifty feet from your property line can fall fifty feet inside your property. How far are your bedrooms from it? If it is a concern you should approach your neighbor before buying the property. Are you willing to share the cost to get it taken down? Or will you find that he doesn't share your concern, and is unwilling to cut down his tree? Which is perfectly OK, it is after all his tree.

     A hundred year old tree can be felled in minutes. Doesn't it make sense to take a little time to make sure it is the right thing to do. After all it will take a hundred years to replace. That is why most jurisdictions have some form of regulations in place to help in the decision making process. While at times over regulation can be frustrating. No regulations at all would prove to be disastrous. If you are in an area that leaves the decision to manage your own trees up to you. Remember to take your time and weigh the benefits of leaving the tree in place or removing it. There are many good reasons to cut down a tree. Perhaps you need extra income from your trees, or perhaps you want to manage them for aesthetics or safety. Just be sure to consider all the consequences, and if you still  have good reason, then go ahead with your tree project. Cutting down trees is nothing new and many good things can result if done properly. You have heard of Stradivarius, haven't you?  

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Comments (2)
Dan Olsen

I worked in a municipal forestry department several years. The cities have no say about what you do on private property -- as far as trees are concerned. The only places they have a any regulations or restrictions is on publicly managed property but this does include right of ways that could run through parts of your property -- commonly along the streets.

Dan - In most cases you are right. . However there can be exceptions. I copied the folowing from the Portland, Oregon city government web site under "Tree Permits". See: www.portlandonline.com/parks "PRIVATE PROPERTY TREE REMOVAL: for trees growing in yards, not in the public right-of-way" "The City of Portland's Tree Cutting Ordinance regulates the cutting of trees 12" in diameter (measured at 4.5 feet above ground) or greater on certain private properties. You may need a permit if your property is located in certain environmental zones, if existing trees are protected through land use regulations, or if the property is dividable. Please call Urban Forestry at 503-823-4489 and a Tree Inspector will review your property status to determine if a permit is needed. If a permit is needed, an application will be sent to you."

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