Are We Missing the Forests for the Trees?
As some of you know, or read in the Journal News (Feb 13, “Yorktown tree bill binds public, private landowners but not utilities”), the Town of Yorktown is proposing an ordinance that would regulate tree preservation and cutting. The draft law, “Yorktown Tree Preservation Ordinance,” is on the agenda for the next Yorktown Town Board meeting, Tuesday, March 3, starting at 7:30 p.m.
The proposed ordinance, largely the work of the town’s Tree Conservation Advisory Commission, is explained in an 11-page document. The intent of the ordinance is to prevent excessive cutting of trees and the loss of ecological services (e.g. soil stabilization and erosion prevention; carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production; flood control; and aesthetic beauty).
The new law would place a limit on the number of live trees per year that land owners can cut without a permit, based on the size of your property: properties up to 0.5 acre, 2 trees; 0.5 – 1 acre, 3 trees; 1-2 acres, 5 trees; and properties greater than 2 acres, 7 trees. The ordinance defines a tree as “one that is a minimum of 25 feet tall at maturity, having a diameter 8 inches or greater measured four and a half feet above ground level.” Yorktown residents also are limited to removing no more than two trees every two years in the perimeter area of their properties. A permit would be required to exceed these tree cutting limits.
The proposal itemizes seven exceptions (besides the allowed cutting limits cited in the above paragraph) where a permit would not be required. For example, there is no limitation on removing dead trees or hazardous trees (but they must be identified in advance by an arborist or forester, or by a town inspector, and related documentation must be kept for a year). Utilities like Con Edison, who cut many trees each year in Yorktown, would be exempt (because Chapter 48, Article 7 of New York’s Public Service Law prevents municipalities from requiring permits from a utility fro tree clearing).
The proposed law also describes the permit procedures, fees, and process for approval of permits to cut additional trees. The permit process could take up to 30 days, unless the case meets “emergency situation” criteria. The Town Board may issue a “general permit” (reviewed annually) “for tree-cutting activities that shall encompass greater than a one-year period or be part of an approved comprehensive plan for which Planning Board approval is not required.”
Teatown Lake Reservation provided Supervisor Don Peters with a brief letter in which we noted that protecting trees is an important environmental protection, but we are concerned that there appears to be no stated exception for managing for some kinds of biodiversity (e.g. to maintain open fields for birds, insects, and herbaceous plants – which requires periodic tree removal to keep meadows open). I am assuming that the law will allow Teatown to get a “general permit” for managing Teatown’s preserve. I am also assuming that the administration and enforcement of the ordinance is practical.
From my point of view, while protecting trees (8 inches or greater, measured 4 ½ feet above the ground level) is laudable and necessary, protecting the full ecological function of our Westchester County forests will not be fully addressed with this ordinance. This is because what is missing in our forests are the seedlings – the young trees and saplings that represent the future of the forest. Did you know that in the Teatown area there are virtually NO native tree seedlings? Few trees in Teatown are younger than 15 years! Simply put our forests are not regenerating and have not been healthy for at least a decade. The seedlings are being consumed by overabundant deer and invasive earthworms – and failing to germinate in our calcium-depleted soils (from acid rain). Preserving the ecological function of our trees (the forest) is what is most important to our future and the future of our children.