2024: The Year Of Finding, Preserving Mother Trees In The Tri-Cities

Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology in the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry, recently published the book: Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.

Simard’s unparalleled research uprooted the industry’s understanding of the forest ecosystem, and shifted the paradigm for the way we understand trees and their ecosystems.

Over eons, Simard established, trees have learned to “perceive” their neighbors through intricate chemical signals; to remember threats to protect other trees and a multitude of other organisms around them; communicate warnings and elicit defenses; and exhibit photosynthetic capacity. Mother trees are responsible for the entire food system, the soil web of life, around them.

Removing or crippling Mother Trees damages ecosystems that extend far beyond legal boundaries, including residential.

These removals slash private property values. Removing large, old trees not deemed hazardous can result in losses up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Recently, the crown jewel centerpiece Mother Tree in our Seven Hills neighborhood was demolished. She was healthy, and not deemed "hazardous." I spotted my first great-horned owl calling for a mate on a cold January night on that tree, and enjoyed seeing her every day. She provided for us all: shade, shelter, food, nesting, carbon-sequestration, and beauty. Now, what’s left in her place is a weird-looking 15-foot trunk, with no plans for removal. Reason number one for enacting an ordinance requiring tree permits.

A tree lover and professional trimmer who has worked for a small outfit, whose owner often said “no” to potential customers wanting to remove such trees, I’ve researched and curated native trees and plantings for decades, volunteered with tree nonprofits, and witnessed nonsensical removals all around us. One of these involved two amateurs who tied a rope around an 80-foot tree, made a low cut, and pulled the tree down onto a lamppost. The giant could have landed on Hillside Road traffic. Reason number two tree permits should be required.

Homeowners have struck down huge, old, healthy trees at an alarming rate all around us the past five years, only to replace them with chlorinated pools, fireplaces, sterile backyards and more monoculture: unsustainable grass. Reason three to require permits.

Mother Trees can’t be replaced in one, two, or even three lifetimes. Often, they are at least one hundred years old. No matter how many trees and shrubs I curate -- including the burr oak sapling planted on my father's 100th birthday -- these removals cannot be mitigated. The traumas affect the immediate needs of wildlife, human health, neighborhood aesthetics, personal enjoyment, and property values. Reason number four permits should be required.

A calculation for the loss of a Mother Tree like the one recently removed from our neighborhood resulted in a $35,000 potential property devaluation, which doesn't affect only that homeowner.

Trees are the only parts of urban infrastructure that appreciate in value.

Repeat: According to Ohio Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry, Cleveland Tree Canopy, and all other tree groups: Unlike human-made infrastructure, trees are the only urban infrastructure that increase in value and service over time. Reason five for permit mandates.

Meanwhile, Parma, Parma Hts., and Seven Hills see unprecedented canopy loss. Yet officials refuse to establish or reestablish tree commissions whose volunteers with science-based training through ODNR Urban Forestry training are best suited to make recommendations for the overall health of our trees.

According to ODNR's website, "Ohio’s Urban Forestry Assistance Program with six regional foresters assist municipalities and townships to develop tree programs," meaning tree commissions.

One community immediately south of Seven Hills and Parma has both a tree commission, and requires permits, so it's not unheard of.

But our tri-cities lost or are losing Tree City USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation because none have tree commissions, represented by equal stakeholders, taken seriously by city leaders.

Although Parma requires a permit for removals and plantings, the seventh largest city in Ohio's tree canopy is dwindling. I was informed Parma officials ignore its in-name-only tree commission. The mayor and service department there handle tree-related concerns, but officials shun tree-savvy residents’ calls for best practices, including hiring an urban forester and revamping its commission.

Does having a tree commission make recommendations to preserve trees in Parma conflict with officials voting on land developments in which they have ownership?

Parma Heights service department tells me they have a part-time consultant who deals with tree matters there, but the city has no tree commission.

Like the deer-kill issue, these cities copycat each other’s draconian “solutions” while ignoring stakeholders, including native wildlife.

Seven Hills’ tree commission is defunct. I repeatedly tried to reestablish it, citing the $40,000 set aside for its operation. Instead, staff plan, plant, and maintain trees in certain parks and city-owned properties. But because the vast majority of Seven Hills land – over 90% – is residential, the growing threat cannot be addressed, not even with well-planned token plots in places like city parks.

To stem the loss, widespread homeowner cooperation is essential. Tree lawn, height-appropriate plantings are a good start, if there is a long-term tree commission plan to protect and maintain them.

But tree lawn programs don't strike at the roots. They're only part of the solution. Having tree commissions gives communities accurate inventories of all trees, including street-view censuses of entire residential properties, to establish baselines and create long-term plans.

Officials with the ODNR’s Urban Forestry division are aware of what's happening here. The new urban forester who covers all of Northeast Ohio is asking officials to respond, and take formal – tree commission establishment – actions to protect trees in perpetuity. Ongoing support from our state’s urban forestry experts is free. But without tree commission partnerships, its services are wasted.

Tri-City officials should be made to listen to ODNR, form or reform tree commissions that represent all stakeholders, and pass ordinances that require permits using best practices per the experts, not tree companies.

Like it or not, we are all part of an ecosystem that benefits, or suffers, depending on the health of all trees.

Mother Trees and all trees are precious and irreplaceable. And if Suzanne Simard were here, she would probably say they are crying out for our help.

Ask your city to bring back tree commissions, and to listen to the recommendations of trained volunteers and urban foresters.

Lucy McKernan

Animals first

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Volume 16, Issue 1, Posted 2:00 PM, 01.01.2024