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Letter: The Tree Canopy in West Hartford

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My Dear Neighbors,

Robert Frost wisely wrote “good fences make good neighbors.” He was polite about it. More to the point, Hank Williams sang “if you mind your business, you won’t be minding mine,” and I assume that theme resonates broadly in our current “don’t tread on me” mindset. And yet, in spite of those words of caution, I’m going to ask that you please forgive me as I wander over that invisible fence and stick out my neck to talk about the increased pace of mature tree removal throughout the town, and beyond, and ask that you step up to help reverse this trend.

Five years ago our family moved into a neighborhood in the southwest corner of town, drawn by the beauty of the aptly-named “Oak Ridge Lane,” robust with mature trees, cooler feeling air, and a sense of quiet, which is especially remarkable since we sit adjacent to an interstate highway. Having spent a chunk of my life in West Hartford and knowing many of the neighborhoods, this one still stood out.  Fast-forward five years and we still have decent mature tree density, but we are trending toward less, while the sounds from the highway are trending louder. Long time neighbors have told me that the pace of mature tree removal has really increased in the past decade or so. The weather has played a role, to be sure (both storms and drought), but it is the intentional human toll on the canopy that I’m writing about. Maybe this points to a generational disconnect, or possibly a cultural shift toward less connection with the outdoors, or I’m afraid, more reverence for the lawn at the expense of the canopy.

So, will one quickly written note, albeit earnest, reverse this trend? My default mindset toward realism tells me “No.” But I’ll instead embrace the wisdom of my sports idol Wayne Gretzky who said “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and give it a go to plead my case that we are all so much better off protecting, nurturing – and appreciating –  the mature trees that still grace our neighborhoods and public spaces, and fight the urge to treat them as our sole possessions that exist only within our property lines, when in fact their presence ripples throughout our neighborhoods and effects all of us. Science and weather teach us that mature trees cut down in a confined area physically weaken the resiliency of the remaining trees. And from an aesthetic point of view, the area becomes more stark, diminishing the feel of the neighborhood beyond any single piece of private or public property. Sort of like playing Jenga, until we pull out the one that irrevocably changes the place that we all desired to move into in the first place. That is the slippery slope we are rapidly sliding down.

The apparent truth is that tree removal companies (as opposed to the few actual arborists who specialize in tree care and might push back on removing a healthy tree) will take down any tree, no matter how magnificent, no questions asked, and once their trucks head to the next job with your check in their pockets and the remains of a tree that had been standing at least since our parents were kids, your neighborhood is diminished for your lifetime and for all of your neighbors. This recently happened in the Wood Pond area where a group of healthy old growth trees were taken down at the whim of a homeowner, indelibly changing the neighborhood for at least a generation, and starting the domino effect of weakening the surrounding canopy. Sure, it’s legal. But is it right? That’s the question we should start asking ourselves.

Meanwhile, each year now becomes the new hottest year on record. I’ve been hearing about the heat and drought – and flood – challenges for years from the farmers we work with in our small business. And as the heat rises, the fires are spreading, even in once unlikely places like nearby temperate Nova Scotia. Just 10 short years ago a temperature of 142 degrees Fahrenheit was measured in the Lut Desert in Iran – in the shade. Hard to imagine. Closer to home, out in Phoenix, we have family who are pretty much prisoners indoors during their increasingly long hot summers. And on and on it goes. Things are changing fast. We all felt what we felt this summer.

So for now, I do know that for every day I wake up here in my neighborhood to all the birdsong and cool mornings, I am immensely grateful for what the remaining majestic trees do for our air, our air-conditioning bill, our yard, and our neighborhood, and for the kids that bike and play all around here. They’ve got it good. So it just kills me to see even one healthy, or salvageable tree taken down, if it’s at all avoidable. And the more socio-economically challenged the neighborhood, the worse the deforestation problem is, and uncoincidentally, the worse the asthma, air quality, and beauty of the area is. That’s not fair to those kids (or their parents).

While it would be wonderful to see the Town of West Hartford, and more of the private tree “care” companies take a more vested interest in maintaining our mature trees, rather than removing them, it all starts with us.

So here is a quick summary that I hope will inspire more than a few of you to re-consider how you value our remaining mature trees and recognize just how strong their game is, and how there really is no substitute for them. Even a concerted effort to plant young trees and shrubs cannot overcome in any realistic time frame the qualitative, measurable, cooling, air-purifying and CO2 trapping impact – and beauty – of the loss of just one mature tree. Here is a quick ticker on just some of the benefits of preserving them:

Mature Trees:

  • have been shown to be a significant boost to property values throughout a neighborhood (for you hard-bitten realists)
  • secure/fix the soil and help mitigate flooding
  • are a significant noise buffer
  • are a significant air purifier and asthma mitigator
  • are, in this, the latest Warmest Year on Record, a massive fixer of greenhouse gases
  • photosynthesize large amounts of carbon dioxide into oxygen, for things like breathing
  • are a provider of lots of shade, and a notable cooler of ambient air.  Just walk into a small grove of healthy large trees on a hot day and you feel the temperature difference.
  • are the safest homes for songbirds, and for birds and bats that eat mosquitos, and for raptors that are beautiful to watch glide through the neighborhood (cats take note), and so many more animals. A hummingbird was just literally at my elbow while I wrote this. Surreal. What a neighborhood!
  • are beautiful, and were here before we were
  • are scientifically shown to make children and adults happier and healthier (mentally and physically)
  • are just plain awesome.  Leaves, nuts and branches are just a part of the trade-off.  Seems fair to me.
  • Some spouses have been scientifically (?) shown to feel notably relieved when the other spouse shuts off the television, gets off the couch and goes outside and admire the trees (or whatever).

Above all, when it comes to maintaining your trees, find a real, qualified arborist who’s first instinct is not “chop it down.” They’re out there.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” – Proverb


Doug Rankin
Oak Ridge Lane
West Hartford

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  • Fantastic Letter Mr. Rankin! Agree 100%! We need to protect those mature trees! The West Hartford Tree Project will be giving away another 1000 tree seedlings this year but it will be decades before they can provide the benefits that our mature tree canopy provides!

  • I couldn’t agree more!!. It’s infuriating to see so many people in my neighborhood cut down such beautifully majestic trees and then two weeks later, like clockwork, up goes the solar panels. As far as I am concerned, the solar companies are also to blame. And it makes no sense at all. A deciduous tree provides shade in the summer and the warmth of sunlight in the winter. Yet they cut the trees down which in turn makes their homes hotter in the summer requiring far more energy to keep the home cool. Aren’t solar companies about saving the planet??? Yet they are destroying the trees.

    So although I cannot change the world, I can change my corner of it. Every time a tree gets cut down in my neighborhood for solar panels, I plant a tree in my yard. And I tell every solar panel salesman exactly why my yard is overrun with trees. But honestly I am running out of room.

    I fail to understand why I am the only person it seems to see solar as ANTI- planet friendly!! But I can’t tell you how happy I was to read your article. I guess I am not alone after all!!

  • Bravo. I see too many healthy trees being cut down and for no apparent reason. Tree companies zoom around town blithely cutting back trees and possibly damaging healthy ones. We all need to be better custodians of our natural environment.

  • Doug,
    Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. It is so true and so sad. As a member of the Traprock Ridge Land Conservancy, I work hard to protect and provide great environments that support trees and wildlife and all the great things that come with them. Our group volunteered in a program to combat the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, protecting trees in multiple towns along local rivers. We remove invasive plants that strangle and block light for the trees. We encourage the planting of native trees and plants that support benefical insects which feed birds and other wildlife. There is so much that can be done. But educating people about the many benefits of keeping and caring for their trees is a great place to start. THANK YOU.
    Jennifer Frank

  • The West Hartford Garden Club has joined Federated Garden Clubs of CT in working to preserve existing canopy and to plant new native trees in our town in order to improve the quality of our air and water, to sequester carbon, and for many other important environmental and aesthetic reasons, including the fact that our pollinators and birds need them desperately. The Letter to the We-Ha Editor shared below echoes a concern many of us have also voiced.

  • Thank you so much for the factual & well written letter. I love the many benefits of our mature trees and how they give our town so much character compared to some newer strip mall type suburbs with neighborhoods full of burnt lawns in summer and no trees or character to be found.

  • Excellent points made in this letter – specifically Mr. Rankin’s underlining of the ecological and human health, social, economic and aesthetic benefits provided by mature, healthy tree canopies. I have hope West Hartford, as other municipalities already have, will move toward viewing its tree infrastructure as a public health benefit and begin to document, assess, value, manage and cultivate its Town-wide Tree Canopy. This is as important and goes hand-in-hand with protecting clean water resources as we do with our beautiful local reservoir. Many monied/educated/healthy communities, towns, cities, states, regions and countries throughout the world have ordinances that require permits to remove trees on private property; Brookfield, Danbury, Fairfield, Hartford, Monroe, New Haven, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Stamford, Wilton, Branford, Manhattan, Philadelphia, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed region, Italy, Germany, Canada, Switzerland to name a few.

    From my own research and work: healthy, mature trees add substantial equity to our home values, up to 15% or 20%. This fact has been shown in numerous research studies. Homes and neighborhoods with mature trees sell faster and higher for longer. Period. Surely something for West Hartford to contemplate.

    Everywhere in the world, protection of the health, safety, and welfare of communities is paramount. The primary reason for tree removal cited is ‘Public Safety’ – from falling limbs. This is obvious. And interestingly, the primary reason for protecting the Town-wide Tree Canopy is also ‘Public Safety’ – for the complex and multi-dimensional but equally obvious reasons outlined by Mr. Rankin. Thank you for your letter.

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