Branch Managers

Hacking trees in the subtropics is ecologically ugly. It's also illegal.

Jack Martin's foot presses down ever so slightly on the gas pedal, inching the white, government-issue Ford Ranger through the gentle curves of a cul-de-sac he's come to know by heart. All around him the sun-warmed walls of pink stucco homes seem to stretch and melt into one another like taffy pulled to the horizon. It's a pleasant morning, but Martin is looking for things he'd rather not find. If he's good at his job, and he is, the reward is a slippery mix of satisfaction and despair.

"Oh...," he whispers, then brakes, jerks the truck into reverse, and backs up half a block to an ugly sight. Limbs torque at odd angles like arms akimbo, crudely severed where their joints should be. He shakes his head in silent disgust. It's 10 a.m., and as usual, Jack Martin is already too late.

The crime? Tree abuse. Homeowners with hat-racked trees are notified and in extreme cases, can face fines of up to $5000. "You never know how they're gonna react," Martin says of the perps. "The looks on their faces, it's like, "Whatsamatta with you? This is a tree, it's only a tree!'"

Arborist C. Way Hoyt measures a ficus. The homeowner chopped down the tree without Hoyt's help or the required permit.
Arborist C. Way Hoyt measures a ficus. The homeowner chopped down the tree without Hoyt's help or the required permit.
Arborist C. Way Hoyt measures a ficus. The homeowner chopped down the tree without Hoyt's help or the required permit.
Larry Singer
Arborist C. Way Hoyt measures a ficus. The homeowner chopped down the tree without Hoyt's help or the required permit.

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But they're not only trees. To the Coconut Creek landscape inspector, "they're my babies."

The links of Martin's gold bracelet match the sun-bleached tips of his platinum hair. He's aware of appearances; in print, he jokes, his comments could make him look a little loony. But when it comes to tree abuse, Martin isn't kidding. "You're always going to get that, "It's my tree, I can do what I want with it.' If we allowed that to happen, a child molester could say, "It's my child, I can do what I want with it!'"

Martin's empathy goes to the, uh, root of the problem: "I certainly have feelings for the tree, because I know it is having a rough time. But more than feelings for the tree, I have feelings for the people," he adds soberly, "'cause they just don't know."

What people don't know is this: They don't own their trees, at least not in the way they own birdbaths or carports or garden gnomes. Beheading your pink plastic flamingo may be ornery, but it's not illegal. Hat-racking your backyard tree in many Broward cities could cost up to $250 per day in fines -- $5000 if it is found to be irreparably damaged and is not replaced.

Hat-racking is the arboreal word for overpruning. "You know back in the olden days when you walked into a house and you saw this little rack?" Martin explains. Although its quaint namesake is now largely obsolete, the practice lingers. "It was probably the most common way of trimming trees in the 1960s and '70s in Broward County. What they didn't know at the time, and what research shows, is that it ends up making the tree more dangerous."

The stubby limbs of hat-racked trees grow back with a vengeance, producing a spate of gangly green growth called water sprouts. "Trees are incredible organisms," marvels Plantation landscape inspector Diana Berchielle. "They will do whatever they can to survive." In fact the hat-racked tree may rebound so dramatically -- as if overcompensating -- that many mistakenly believe it is healthier, like the theory that bobbing one's hair will ultimately strengthen it. "Even my own mother will say, "Well, the tree's going to grow back more beautifully,'" Berchielle adds in disbelief. So how can something that feels so right be so wrong?

Survivors of hat-racking are not the fittest. As if to spite us, the limbs that grow back are lanky, weakened, and hazardous in a storm. What's more, the tree's internal structure is permanently damaged. Berchielle's boss, Plantation landscape architect Jeffrey Siegel, uses an anthropomorphic example: "If they take out your lung, your life span will be shorter."

The immediate effect of hat-racking, however, is the destruction of the canopy. Aesthetic value aside, this can be costly. A 1996 analysis of the City of Fort Lauderdale's urban forest by the conservation group American Forests put a hefty price tag on the benefits of trees. They improve air quality by storing carbon (a major air pollutant), cut energy costs by providing shade, and reduce storm-water flow. It is estimated the city's trees suck up 1410 tons of carbon per year -- a function valued at $1.3 million -- and save $1,050,000 annually in summer cooling costs by providing shade to homes.

The trend is toward protecting these savings. Palm Beach County enacted a tree ordinance in 1986, substantially revised it six years later, and has made it increasingly stringent in the years since. Broward County commissioners passed a similar measure in 1991 and will vote on additional regulations this fall -- among them, requiring tree trimmers to attend a training seminar in order to obtain a license.

Until recently, however, Broward's enforcement was scattershot. Like Fort Lauderdale, Plantation didn't have a law pertaining to single-family homes until the beginning of this year, a painful fact of life for tree people like Berchielle. "I used to have to drive by homes and not do anything about it because it was not a city code," she says. "This is fairly new with the cities cracking down."

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