Lincoln ‘Treehugger’ Watches in Despair as Neighborhood Trees Fall Like Dominoes
March 19, 2023
While marginalized communities are surrounded by impervious surfaces and polluting industry and lack green space, a growing tendency in more affluent and mostly white neighborhoods is the slaughter of healthy trees for parochial reasons.
Cutting down trees because their leaves clog gutters, their pine needles are messy, it hurts when acorns are stepped on, or because branches and twigs fall when it’s windy, doesn’t jibe with the importance of these majestic pillars.
Trees are more than Christmas decorations, or for building decks and docks. They provide shade and habitat. They are buttresses against wind and rain. They provide oxygen — one tree, on average, produces about 260 pounds of oxygen annually. They help mitigate the climate crisis.
Last month, ecoRI News published an opinion piece by Providence resident Victor Martelle about the axing of urban trees. His piece led with this sentence:
“When I chat with landlords who live near me on the city’s East Side about why they had trees removed from their property, ‘squirrels,’ ‘bird poop,’ ‘I hate raking,’ or ‘I want grass or concrete instead,’ are the most common explanations.”
That lead and the rest of Martelle’s piece hit a nerve with a longtime Lincoln, R.I., resident. She sent an email to ecoRI News, and later this reporter spoke with her via Zoom. She didn’t want her name used, for fear of upsetting her neighbors. It is private property after all, she noted.
In her email, she wrote she has been watching a “disturbing trend” unfold in her suburban neighborhood during the past few years: “neighbors are cutting down every tree on their property!” — a bit of hyperbole after reading Martelle’s piece, but the scars are visible from Westerly to Woonsocket.
“Typically the tree cutting occurs by new, younger owners when homes are sold, but long time owners are also doing this for reasons like the ‘mess,’” she wrote. “As a tree lover I find this extremely distressing to witness. Are all these people completely unaware of the benefits of trees, both psychological and for their role in mitigating climate change?”
When she moved to Rhode Island four decades ago, to Cumberland from out of state, it was during the height of a gypsy moth infestation. She wanted to get her property exempted from the town’s spraying program, as she was more concerned about the poisons being sprayed than the damage being done by the invasive species.
That request required getting her immediate neighbors to sign on. They didn’t, and she understood.
“Without fail, no one would sign my petition, citing ‘property values going down if we lose our trees,’” she wrote. “Fast forward 40 years and now everyone is clear-cutting their properties. I just don’t get it. It is heartbreaking.”
Last year the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association held a summit titled “Trees for the People: Environmental Justice for Rhode Island’s Frontline Communities.” The event featured three keynote speakers — Providence resident Tonay Gooday-Ervin, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona and a third-generation Cuban American; Kufa Castro, recruitment and leadership coordinator at Providence-based Building Futures; and Joann Ayuso, founding director of Movement Education Outdoors.
They all spoke about the importance of trees and how they are more than things to be owned or a resource that equals money.
As a project coordinator with the PVD Tree Plan, Ayuso had the opportunity to read surveys and have conversations with people about trees. She noted much of the feedback disrespected the vital role trees play in human health and well-being.
“Now depending on who the story or opinion is coming from, folks say, ‘Eh, trees are great to build houses. The leaves on the trees are a nuisance because I have to clean them up. Trees mostly get in the way of seeing things. Trees are dangerous; they get old and fall on your house,’” she said. “The comments remind me of separation of nature and body that is at the core of the environmental catastrophes we face today. When this separation occurs, it’s easy to keep distance to not acknowledge our relatedness to land, water, air, and nonhuman life. Disconnection brings disrespect and disregard. This creates an opportunity to exploit a tree, mistreat, and gain profit.”
During the recent conversation with the self-proclaimed “treehugger” living in Lincoln — she has lived there since 1987 and in the same house for the past 26 years — she spoke about the same disrespect of which Ayuso referred.
Between her home and her neighbor’s in the back, stood a significant stand of trees, at least for a suburban neighborhood, under which a carpet of leaves, felled branches, woody debris, and some native plants provided food and shelter for wildlife. There used to be more of an understory of bushes and small trees, but during the past decade deer ate most of that away.
Most of the homes in the neighborhood were built in the mid-1980s, so the trees have some height, 75 feet or so.
Her new backyard neighbors arrived in December 2021 and quickly had most of the stand that stood on their property — maples, evergreens, and a few oaks — cut down. In January of last year a fleet of trucks arrived and by the end of the day a dozen or so trees were gone. She shared before and after photos.
“We had maybe a 20-foot buffer of trees and leaf litter and underbrush on our side of the property and they had a similar swath on their side of the property,” she said. “Well, they also came in with bulldozers and dug all of that out, and they planted grass right up to the tree line. … I absolutely cried that day.”
A few months later, the new owners “actually approached me in the spring when they were having their landscaping work done and asked if it would be OK if they cleaned up our side.” She didn’t accept the offer.
Another neighbor recently had a few mature trees close to their house cut down.
“She said they changed homeowners insurance last year and the new insurance company made them cut down any trees close to the house,” she said. “I mean, we have all these global initiatives where people are planting millions of trees, you know, to absorb carbon and help the climate. I’m in my 60s and I’ve never seen this before anywhere I’ve lived. I’ve never seen people cut down trees like this. … This neighborhood does tend to be a bit of what I call sheeple — one person does one thing and they all seem to follow.”
Since they often suffer from a lack of tree cover, low-wealth areas in cities can be 5-7 degrees hotter during the day than higher-income neighborhoods and up to 22 degrees warmer at night.
Besides helping to lessen the heat-island effect by providing shade, a healthy tree canopy also provides essential ecological functions such as capturing carbon to help mitigate the climate crisis; absorbing air pollutants that exacerbate asthma and other respiratory ailments; and reducing stormwater runoff and energy use.