Local Tree Ordinances

By Craig Chisholm, MWM Clackamas County and Nicole Strong, MWM Coordinator

This big old tree is always full of birds, and song!

There is a great big ol’ “yellow belly” Ponderosa Pine in my back yard. A Wolf Tree, some of you would call it. It has a lot of sweep, big thick gnarled branches, and it drops needles, cones, and sap like crazy. Just last Sunday I was cleaning out gutters and mumbling to myself about the never ending work this tree makes for me when I stopped and looked up.  Two Flickers were making their way up and around it’s huge trunk. A host of Sparrows were chirping and flitting around between my tree and the neighboring trees. A squirrel was chewing it’s way through a cone, storing up on seeds for winter. I have seen a Barred Owl hang out peacefully, apparently oblivious to the enraged throng of Jays trying to scare it away. That tree is a bountiful source of food, cover, and nesting space for wildlife. It provides privacy from my neighbor, cleans the air, stabilizes soil, and sequesters carbon. It’s easy to forget what an important role these “city” trees have in healthy urban ecosystems, and to forget that just as we need to manage our working forest landscapes, we need to work hard to ensure healthy urban forests for the future.

Master Woodland Manager Craig Chisholm (Clackamas Co.) has dedicated considerable time and energy working on mechanisms by which communities might work with agencies and policy makers to incentivize homeowners to plant and care for trees with long term sustainability in mind. A discussion on some of his thoughts related to this follows.   

The Problem

Do local tree ordinances burdening urban private landowners eventually tend to cause private landowners to cease planting and properly managing trees on their lands?  Are local tree ordinances advancing the goal of sustainable urban forests?
It is apparent that in urban forests long subject to tree ordinances, such as Lake Oswego, few new trees are being voluntarily planted on private land.  The trees that are voluntarily planted on private land now tend to be the kind that will not be large when they mature.  There is much to indicate that the existence of a tree ordinance is part of the cause of this situation.  Whatever the cause, even if the cohort of larger trees regulated by a tree ordinance on private lands continues to grow and the canopy increases, the sustainability of the urban forest on such private lands will decline if there are few new trees planted.
There are ancillary issues with tree ordinances: Public resentment toward what is often viewed as government interference and burdensome expense may smolder; the public may tend to turn against even unrelated, sensible government efforts.  Citizens may come to think that it is unwise to plant trees.  On the foreseeable day of the great wind, legions of large trees, unmanaged because of cumbersome tree ordinances, will fall with wide and painful destruction.

If local tree ordinances do cause private landowners to cease to plant and properly manage trees, how might such laws be improved and take into account the dynamic nature of urban forests in order to make them more sustainable?

Tree ordinances can and may be repealed as political leadership changes.  However, an alternative is to amend tree ordinances by exceptions.  Exceptions could be added to existing ordinances which would exclude from their burdens the private lands with sufficient plantings of trees.  Such exceptions would be based on a stocking requirement akin to that found in State of Oregon’s well-considered Oregon Forest Practices Act.

The concept of required stocking is at the heart of the successful Oregon Forest Practices Act.   Stocking is not just measured by large trees, but also by small trees and seedlings. The Oregon Forest Practices Act does not seek to preserve particular individual trees.  Instead it takes into account the dynamic nature of forests and attempts to sustain and conserve the forests.  This principle has worked well for Douglas fir forests and might be adapted to apply in cities.

Under this principle, owners with a sufficient number (not necessarily existing canopy or basal area) of growing trees would not be further troubled by a local ordinance.  Those who do not have a satisfactory stocking of trees would continue to suffer as they do now until they add trees to their lands. This would motivate them to add trees.  Such an amendment, while encouraging sustainable urban forests, would greatly reduce the burdens on landowners who already have a satisfactory stocking of trees while reducing the monetary and political costs for local governments.

Another exception might be to exclude private land from an ordinance in order to facilitate the use of solar or other energy collectors on such land.   The relief from the burden of an existing tree ordinance may again work as an incentive to encourage green investments.  This would have both environmental and economic benefits.  

Some more benefits that may be expected from such amendments are: less administrative costs and less resentment toward local government; fewer burdens on landowners; a more sustainable urban forest; greater land values and tax base; less tort liability and insurance cost from falling trees; greater use of alternative energy; stronger municipal bond ratings; and greater respect for the law.
As an aside, a rather complex legal argument might already be made that local Oregon tree ordinances, since they are preservation instead of conservation laws, fail to follow the conservation requirements of the State of Oregon’s planning laws, but I will spare the reader such a discussion.  For those who remain invincibly curious about “the nice sharp quillets of the law,” note the reasoning of the Oregon Supreme Court case, Baker vs. City of Milwaukie, 271 OR 500, 533 P2d 772 (1975) and parse the conservation wording (N.B. not preservation wording) of the State land use goals and guidelines, comparing that to city comprehensive plans and the wording of tree ordinances.   

If you are interested in learning more about urban and community forests in your area, I suggest the following links and contacts:
OSU Extension Service Urban Forestry: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/metro/urban-forestry

Oregon Department of Forestry Urban and Community Forestry http://www.oregon.gov/odf/Pages/urban_forests/urban_forests.aspx

Oregon Community Trees. http://oregoncommunitytrees.org/

Paul Ries is Courtesy Faculty with OSU College of Forestry and specialized in urban and community forest management. Paul.ries@oregonstate.edu

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