When data analysts in Cambridge, MA saw through satellite imagery that the urban tree canopy of the city had precipitously shrunken, the City Council called it an emergency; a moratorium on removing healthy trees was put in place and the City Council of Cambridge enacted a new ordinance protecting healthy mature trees on all public and private property in the city. The city of Glencoe, Illinois right outside Chicago calls grown trees their greatest asset, and protects all trees – including on private property if they are on the edges of lots in the public site (and shade) line. Cindy Creem, Newton’s State Senator, has recently re-filed her bill called An Act Establishing the Municipal Reforestation Program to help local governments rebuild their local tree canopies.

The importance of tree canopies — the web of mature, deciduous trees that covers an area — cannot be overstated. Mature trees’ well-known benefits of cooling and cleaning the air, reducing flooding, sequestering carbon and providing habitat for wildlife, are amplified when they are in community with other mature trees. That is why Newton’s City Council voted to spend $15.2 million dollars to buy Webster Woods. That is ostensibly why the Mayor is proposing $500,000 a year in the override to plant, prune and care for our public (street) trees.

Newton’s tree canopy has declined over 50% since the 1970’s. That means losing half of our street trees in 50 years. We don’t have any numbers for trees on private property, but development, disease, gas leaks and storms have reduced that canopy severely. We are in an emergency. But to focus only on spending money to plant baby saplings – which need intense care to survive and will reach “maturity” in approximately 30 – 50 years — is only looking at half the problem. Right now in Newton there are no protections for mature trees on residential properties. Your neighbor can cut down any and all trees on their property for any reason and never have to get a permit or plant replacement trees, as long as they live there. Your local developer can do the same as long as they pay a small amount into a tree replacement fund. There is no incentive to save the mature trees that are doing such yeoman’s work for our environment and peace of mind.

Things need to change. Developers must start rethinking how they cite new structures, and move driveway plans instead of removing trees that are hundreds of years old. Residents must start thinking of themselves as the lucky custodians of the healthy, mature trees on their properties. This does not mean trees can never be removed. There are many scenarios where removing a healthy tree is necessary. But let’s make that the exception, not the all too common rule. Let’s ask residents to get a permit before they remove any significant tree on their property, and maybe the tree warden can discuss with them which removals make sense, and which can be avoided. Let’s ask homeowners to notify their neighbors when they are going to remove trees on the perimeter of their property, so the neighbor can protect their own trees, and perhaps figure out a good tree preservation plan together.

These provisions are in a version of the Tree Ordinance proposal before the City Council right now. And yet, they are getting a huge amount of push back from some members of the Programs and Services committee. These suggestions are common sense. For the city to allow anyone to cut down healthy mature trees one day, and ask for ½ a million dollars in a tax override to plant baby saplings the next day is foolhardy. We need both! We are in a climate emergency. Other cities and states are making moves to protect the priceless natural resource they already possess: mature trees. Why can’t Newton do the same?

Barbara Brousal-Glaser
Former City Councilor, Ward 3
Member of Protect Newton Trees

The Op-ed was originally published in the Fig City News on January 31, 2023.