Guidelines for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances

Part 1. Planning for an ordinance


More and more communities are beginning to recognize the very tangible benefits that trees provide in the urban environment. Healthy trees reduce air and noise pollution, provide energy-saving shade and cooling, furnish habitat for wildlife, enhance aesthetics and property values, and are an important contributor to community image, pride, and quality of life. Furthermore, many communities have realized that in order to protect and enhance their valuable tree resources, it is useful to view and manage their trees as a cohesive unit, the community or urban forest.

Tree ordinances are among the tools used by communities striving to attain a healthy, vigorous, and well-managed community forest. By themselves, however, tree ordinances cannot assure that the trees in and around our communities will be improved or even maintained. Tree ordinances simply provide the authorization and standards for management activities. If these activities are not integrated into an overall management strategy, problems are likely to arise. Without an overall strategy, management will be haphazard, inefficient, and ineffective, and the community forest will suffer.

This larger management view is commonly lacking when ordinances are developed. Local ordinances are often developed in response to public outcry over specific perceived problems. This “band-aid” approach frequently leads to ordinances that are not consistent with sound community forest management, and may in fact thwart good management efforts. For example, public outcry has led to the development of many ordinances designed to protect old “heritage” trees. Unfortunately, most of these same ordinances allow the routine destruction of younger trees. The end result may be an unsustainable community forest, short on young trees and long on old, declining trees. By focusing too narrowly on individual trees, such ordinances may contribute to the degradation of the community forest over the long term.

A tree ordinance is not a panacea for poor or inadequate municipal tree management. Nor is it a replacement for a comprehensive community forestry program that is fully supported by the local government and community residents. Properly applied, tree ordinances can facilitate good management of community tree resources. Improperly applied, ordinances can legitimize counterproductive practices and undermine the long term success of the community forest.