July 27, 2006

Parts of US West Bar Tree-Cutting on Private Land

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho -- In a state where pine and fir outnumber residents, the loss of several privately owned spruces should hardly excite attention, let alone spark a crusade emblematic of a new trend to protect trees on private land.

But in the ski community of Ketchum, Idaho, a seasonal home for the rich and famous and the last resting place of writer Ernest Hemingway, a developer's plan to cut down three towering conifers on his property spurred the city to issue an emergency order last month outlawing the felling of mature trees.

Resident Lara Babalis wanted additional assurances. She spent days collecting signatures on a petition to save the spruces and engaged in an extended vigil beneath the trees in the hours before the cutting ban was to go into effect.

When Babalis interrupted her trespassing vigil to walk her dogs, a construction worker delivered a deathblow to the 80-year-old evergreens. "A guy with a chain saw showed up the minute I took a break. By the time I came back, they were dying," she said.

Just two weeks before, the neighboring town of Hailey called a halt to the injury or destruction of large trees after a property owner in the business district chopped down five of his century-old evergreens.

These resort towns are the latest among a growing number of communities from Idaho to California seeking to protect their dwindling natural canopies by placing restrictions on the cutting of trees on private land.

The policies -- which do not apply to timber harvesting on private tree farms or federal lands -- are being imposed amid debates over future growth in exclusive enclaves such as Ketchum and Hailey, which are hemmed in by public lands and where developers seek to fill entire lots with structures.


Tree devotees applaud the measures but property rights proponents say towns are going too far.

"Since when do the rights of trees take precedence over the rights of people?" said Elbie Bellon, owner of a tire and auto store in Hailey. "I'm a tree-hugger. I've planted hundreds in my lifetime, but I think it's totally ridiculous that someone can come along and tell you not to cut a tree down."

Sprawl, old age and lean local budgets are behind a steady loss in the number of mature trees in many U.S. cities, according to American Forests, a non-profit conservation group based in Washington D.C.

A study conducted by the group showed urban areas had 21 percent less tree cover in 2003 compared to a decade before.

Trees save cities millions each year by improving air quality, lowering energy use and reducing storm water runoff. Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests, cites research that suggests trees raise worker productivity, aid healing and boost spending by shoppers.

Worshiped by ancient religions and praised by poets, trees were rooted in the American consciousness even before John Chapman sprinkled apple seeds across the nation's then frontier in the early 19th century.

"Trees invoke a tremendous amount of passion in individuals and in communities," said Dan Lambe, vice president of programs for the National Arbor Day Foundation.


That passion played out in public in San Francisco after a property owner in October cut down the first of several trees last year favored by a wild -- and now celebrated -- flock of parrots. City officials responded to the ensuing outcry by approving a program in January that protects trees designated as landmarks.

Since then, the city's forestry council has outlined goals to upgrade an urban forest whose origins date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a nearly treeless landscape was planted.

In the lakefront community of Kirkland, Washington, officials have cut from five to two the number of healthy trees residents are allowed to fell on their property. Violators face a fine of up to $1,000 a tree and bear the cost of its replacement.

David Stephenson, manager of the Idaho Community Forestry Program, is among those who hope such steps will rejuvenate the spirit of planting that infused Western towns a century ago and provided the framework for their forests today. He worries that the decline of communities' canopies is linked to an underlying cultural shift.

"People once moved to cities from rural areas and they wanted to bring with them that rural character, which trees represented," he said. "Now we have generations born and raised in cities and we are in danger of losing that contact with nature."

Back in Ketchum, where tree cover has declined by an estimated 40 percent since 1993, residents are still seething over the developer's destruction of the three spruces.

"The community is outraged with that type of behavior," said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.