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What's Up Magazine

What Do You Think? Preserving Tree Canopy, Preserving Democracy

Aug 29, 2016 04:37PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ellen Moyer

On June 29, 2012, a devastating fast moving wind storm cut a 700-mile path across the United States toppling trees and power lines and leaving 4.2 million people without power.

In Maryland, this rare Derecho caused three deaths and left 500,000 residents without electricity, some for as long as 10 days. The storm occurred at the same time the nation was suffering an extreme heatwave. Temperatures reached well above 100 degrees for days, from Cumberland to the Atlantic Ocean and claimed another eight lives in Maryland.

In reaction to an angry public, the State Legislature granted authority to utility companies for tree trimming around power lines and forbade communities from interfering with the tree trimming process.

Should a corporation have this “no public say” authority over the laws enacted by local governments concerning the value of trees in our environment?

Maryland has a long history in support of its trees. In 1914, it enacted the Roadside Tree Law to ensure care and protection compatible with public utilities. The Big Tree Program that identifies Champion trees, like the Wye Oak, was initiated by Maryland’s Forester Fred Besley in 1925.

On the Nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, the State celebrated its Famous Trees. There was the Liberty Tree on St. John’s College campus that had served as a meeting place for the Sons of Liberty prior to 1776; Lafayette had been feted under its branches in 1824. At Generals Highway, a White Oak, the Three Mile Oak, was the meeting place where colonial dignitaries were met and escorted into Annapolis.

Trees, the oldest and largest of living things that provide the oxygen we need to breathe, had stories to tell. “Listening to Our Trees: A Walking Tour of West Annapolis” was one of many that engaged community residents with their natural and cultural history.

By 1980, the positive impact of trees on our environment in cleaning pollutants out of our water and in the air was recognized. The Annapolis Tree Committee co-chaired by Anne Pearson and Colby Rucker recommended legislation to protect our tree canopy for its impact on our personal and environmental health. This progressive legislation, ahead of its time, prevented removal of trees five inches in diameter, required a permit for tree removal, and required tree replacement of one-for-one or greater. Over the years, protecting the city’s tree canopy led Annapolis to a 42 percent urban canopy cover, the highest in the state.

Then came the rare Derecho and the new law. In 2016, BGE announced it would trim 216 trees (visions of telephone pole look a likes) and cut down 39 in the Annapolis Historic District. Was all this necessary? What would be its impact on other concerns, such as oxygen and carbon sequestration? Did we have a right to know?

The city’s policies for private property owner say in the matter, and a law that required replacement, could be ignored. Ignored too was consideration of the benefits of trees to reduce urban heat islands, and to clean air and clean water. Ignored as well was the City’s contract to increase its tree canopy to 50 percent, signed in 2006 with DNR and the USDA Forest Service in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Riparian Forest Buffer program.

Protection against energy loss and policies concerning environment and human health are in conflict.

In 2003, the Maryland State Highway Authority commissioned a study to explore the cost benefits for overhead or under grounding utility lines. The report identified new benefits of under grounding as reduction of traffic accidents, reduced exposure to EMF, increase in property value, and a reduction in maintenance and care costs to the company. Initial installation underground was more expensive and repair to a broken line more time consuming.

Could the legislature have done something more than give the utility companies authority over tree canopy in conflict with other health standards? Yes. They could have forged a partnership, considered public policy conflicts, and rule of local law in a representative government, and established a long term plan to bury the wires in urban areas. They could have required community engagement in the utility tree trimming planning. They didn’t. For now, a citizen “no say” policy is in effect. Communities are forbidden to interfere with the utility corporation who also show no interest in undergrounding wires.

Should a corporation have this much legal authority over our lives in a democratic representative form of government? Does this law establish a precedent? After trees, what's next?

What do you think and why?
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