The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Public Spaces

Unexpected tree removal alarms neighbors

Last night, residents of S Street NW between 15th and 17th discovered Emergency No Parking signs stating that the trees on the block would be removed. The residents had not known about any tree removal, nor had the local ANC commissioners. The blocks had already lost several mature trees in recent years, and residents worried about losing more.

Tree-lined Swann Street. Photo by edwhitaker.

An hour, several DC Council staff, some representatives of the Mayor, and some frantic calls to DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration later, everyone found out the truth. Only three trees on the two blocks were coming down. These trees were either dead or seriously damaged in recent storms, but, according to ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson, "There was evidently a problem that the contractor had decided timing on removing the trees and had not properly consulted with DDOT, much less the neighborhood."

This resembles a similar controversy last year. DDOT removed some trees in Kalorama Park. At first, neighbors and members of the Council were outraged that DDOT had taken these trees down with no notice. Later, they discovered that the organization which helps maintain the park had been asking to remove the trees for years. The ANC had known about the request when it was first made, but it hadn't come before them recently. The Department of Parks and Recreation hadn't done anything about it. Trees in parks later became DDOT's responsibility, so DDOT moved ahead with the preexisting request.

These tree controversies haven't hinged on the professional judgement of DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration. They seem to make decisions thoughtfully and reasonably. However, when residents hear about the tree removals at the last minute, for whatever reason, it's natural to become upset. This is a common criticism of DDOT. The professionals at that organization very frequently make the right choice, but without communication, they don't get credit for their good work.

Last year, Councilmember Jim Graham introduced a bill to require more notice before DDOT removes trees, unless there is an imminent danger. Jack Evans, whose ward includes today's tree scare, also cosponsored the legislation. The Council didn't act on it, but perhaps the Council should revive the legislation. Or, better yet, DDOT would fix their processes to ensure that, when possible, neighbors and ANCs get reasonable notice. In almost all cases, I'm sure the neighbors and ANC representatives will conclude, as in these cases, that DDOT's expert arborists know what they are doing.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

Maybe DDOT realizes that people will fly off the handle whenever tree removal is mentioned, and delay the process of removing dead trees. My experience with DDOT is that they wait too long to remove dead/dying/unsafe trees, and do not touch them too soon.

by ah on Mar 5, 2009 4:17 pm • linkreport

yes, we had a little scare in our neighborhood just yesterday. A neighbor emailed me asking if I knew why they were cutting down all the 100-yr old Ginkos on 13th Street SE, which freaked me out because I hadn't noticed. Fortunately it turned out that only a few had been cut down, and they were the dead ones.

You are right about the notification thing. Tree canopies are a Huge contributor to neighborhood character and personality, and the sudden loss can be pretty jarring.

by DG-rad on Mar 5, 2009 4:47 pm • linkreport

@ DG-rad: Male ginkos or female ginkos? There seems an obvious reason to remove the female ones.

by Steve on Mar 5, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

I won't defend the shoddy communication here, but tree removal often needs to take place fast, depending upon the reason for the removal. I grew up in Minneapolis, where they very aggressively cut down elm trees as soon as they showed signs of Dutch Elm disease. The result is that they were able to slow the spread of the disease, and Minneapolis still has some great mature Elm trees to this day. They also used that opportunity to plant more trees than they cut down, diversifying the population at the same time (to prevent the kind of epidemics like Dutch Elm that could wipe out an entire urban forest).

I'm no forester, nor do I know why these particular trees are dead and to be cut down, but I just wanted to point out that there are very legitimate reasons for acting fast with regard to tree removal.

As for notice, the city of Minneapolis would come around and spray paint a large orange stripe around the trunks of trees that were going to come down. That's a nice and public way of showing what the plan is. It doesn't provide for input, but at least people know what the deal is.

by Alex B. on Mar 5, 2009 4:59 pm • linkreport

DDOT uses orange paint (and other colors) to mark trees for removal as well.

by ah on Mar 5, 2009 5:11 pm • linkreport

David, thanks so much for posting this. I was indeed concerned when I heard that trees were coming down in my SMD without any notification. I trust DDOT's Urban Forestry Division to make accurate judgements about the health and safety of trees, but also need to know if trees are coming down.

In my small SMD of 2 blocks wide by 4 blocks tall, there are over a dozen empty tree boxes that need to be replanted. I informed DDOT through the Mayor's online form last summer about each of the empty boxes, but it can take up to a year for trees to be planted, and then a significant number of saplings die in the first year. The neighborhood is a better place with trees and greenery, and it is my desire to work with DDOT to keep our trees healthy.

by Jack Jacobson on Mar 5, 2009 5:35 pm • linkreport

This is why entrusting their counterparts to make architectural decisions for the city is such great idea!

by JTS on Mar 5, 2009 6:39 pm • linkreport

DDOT has been vigilant about removing trees, but what about maintaining them? Does anyone make sure the trees are getting enough water, because absent that, during droughts, which we've had for at least the last two summers, trees might have a greater chance of becoming diseased, though I do understand that some diseases exist independent of the water issue.

The city's tree program must be about more than simple removal.

by Jazzy on Mar 5, 2009 10:37 pm • linkreport

I work with some tree issues where I live.

Cutting decisions often do happen quickly, for the reasons Alex cited, and also because of weather, and availability of workers, especially if the tree cutting/planting staff is contractors rather than full-time staff.

As for watering, the best way to handle that is to organize on a neighborhood basis. Try to drum up volunteers to act as stewards, and if a tree is planted in front of your house, water it. Don't assume somebody else will, or that the city will.

by spookiness on Mar 5, 2009 11:11 pm • linkreport

Yeah, spooki, I do. It's not enough though.

I am fairly certain that all of DDOT's tree axing is contracted.

by Jazzy on Mar 6, 2009 7:23 am • linkreport

To me the real next question is what does DDOT do with the cut down wood? Some species (gingko) are useless. Other species can actually be milled into lumber that you can make available to the community. That's instead of chipping the wood and sending the wood to the landfill. Lot of oak trees can be put to productive as milled lumber or raw material for craftsmen use rather than wasted. Several cities like San Francisco, Seattle, etc. have such programs. DC does not.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Turning downed trees into building supplies fits right into that environmental mantra.

by Brendan on Mar 6, 2009 7:53 am • linkreport

Jazzy and anyone concerned about trees, I encourage you to tap into Casey Trees in DC. It's a great organization that does everything from planting and caring for trees on public and private land in DC to offereing courses on tree care for anyone and has school programs to educate young people on the value and care of trees.

Casey Trees planted trees in the trees boxes on my street in Cleveland/Woodley Park and on my families' street in Columbia Hgts. I have volunteered with CT on tree planting projects in 3 locations in DC: a park in "Tobago", a park and schoolyard at GA Ave and Missouri Ave. NW and a schoolyard in Chev Ch DC. (They do work all over the city, I volunteered close to home/work).

Projects include tree maintainence as well as planting. Casey Trees is a great resource for tree-lovers. One resource is tree data and maps so you can see down to the block what trees are in your neighborhood.

by Bianchi on Mar 6, 2009 8:23 am • linkreport

Also have experience with them, and in general, yes it's good they exist, and I support them.

But I feel like Jerry Seinfeld here: anyone can PLANT a tree (anyone can TAKE a reservation); the key is MAINTAINING the tree (HOLDING the reservation).

Also, they do not coordinate all that well with key stakeholders and volunteers in neighborhoods, and they have not been all that responsive, at least not where I have lived. Maybe it was just a bad couple of occasions.

by Jazzy on Mar 6, 2009 10:11 am • linkreport


DDOT will plant, but it's up to residents to water. DDOT (and NGOs like Casey Trees)will assist by providing equipment, such as hoses and TreeGaiters/Ooze Tubes.

You can get them by contacting Urban Forestry.

If memory serves there is a program that sells/recycles commercially valuable wood. And mulches that which is not valuable, as well as Christmas Trees. Of course, the leaves collected in fall/winter are also mulched.

by Mark on Mar 6, 2009 1:25 pm • linkreport

Thanks Mark. Good to know.

I water. I have one or two friends who water. It's a lot of work.

Still, if that is the case, lots more trees (the big "canopy" ones we love so much) will continue to die in droughts. Sad...

by Jazzy on Mar 6, 2009 2:00 pm • linkreport

When DDOT plants the new trees, they provide information on tree maintenance to the nearest house. According to DDOT, they will "provide a watering bag, a trunk protector, and a bag of mulch the second year" and "the resident is asked to sign a Tree Keeper Agreement pledging to water and care for the tree for two years." Of course, this works best when the residents receiving the notice are willing to do the necessary work. Many owner-occupants as well as some renters who are interested in the environment and our tree canopy do maintain the trees near their homes. Maintenance of new trees that are not near homes, or even businesses is a different problem.

A list of the locations where DDOT will be planting trees is available on their web-site. The type of tree depends on the location, and DDOT doesn't plan large canopy trees under power lines.

by Andy on Mar 6, 2009 2:37 pm • linkreport

Healthy mature trees are hardy and can ususally survive droughts that kill saplings/newly planted trees.

Mature trees in this city are much more likely to be killed from "volcano mulch".

Piling mulch up around the trunk of a tree kills it outright or weakens it and makes it susceptible to disease. The trunk needs to breathe. The shoulders of the roots should be visible. Mulch should be spread out, not piled up.

Weed whackers kill a lot of trees too by cutting into the bark.

by Bianchi on Mar 6, 2009 3:01 pm • linkreport

I was down there today and noticed that many of the trees on that street have a spray painted yellow dot on them. I hope that does not mean they are coming down. Turning left from 16th Street, the first 4 (at least) on either side had the dots on them.

by Jazzy on Mar 7, 2009 2:32 pm • linkreport

Yellow dots are usually found on Ginkgo trees, and indicate they'll be treated to inhibit fruit production. Red dots indicate the tree will come down.

By the way, when DDOT enters the tree and data into a GIS system, so marking a tree for action isn't something a person with a can of spray paint can do on their own...

by Mark on Mar 9, 2009 9:33 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us