Guidelines for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances

Developing a community forest management strategy

Many community tree ordinances have been developed in response to public outcry over specific perceived problems. Unfortunately, a "band-aid" approach to developing tree ordinances often leads to ordinances that are not consistent with sound management practices, and which can actually thwart good management. We believe that communities need to develop or review their overall urban forest management strategy before considering a new or revised tree ordinance. Policy makers must recognize that the primary goal is effective management of local tree resources, not simply regulation.

Tree ordinances provide the legal framework for successful urban forest management by enabling and authorizing management activities. However, methods for managing the urban forest ecosystem are continually evolving, and the input of trained professionals to the management process is critical. Therefore, we believe that ordinances should facilitate rather than prescribe management. Successful tree ordinances follow this guiding principle.

If the role of a tree ordinance is to facilitate resource management, the tree ordinance must be part of a larger community forest management strategy. Most of the shortcomings attributed to tree ordinances can usually be traced to the lack of a clearly thought-out management strategy. Poor planning leads to poor ordinances, and even the best-written ordinance is unlikely to succeed in the absence of an overall urban forest management strategy. We have found that few existing tree ordinances have been developed as part of a comprehensive management strategy.

How to develop a management strategy

We have generally followed Miller's (1988) model of the management planning process. More recently, the descriptive term adaptive management has been applied to this process. Miller (1988) presents the management planning process in terms of three basic questions:

Developing an appropriate tree ordinance may be a partial answer to the third question, i.e., it is one way of trying to get what you want. However, it should be clear that the first two questions need to be answered before the third can be addressed. Thus, assessment (determining what you have) and goal-setting (determining what you want) should precede any consideration of an ordinance.

In practice, answering the first two questions is often an iterative process. Communities may have ideas about what they want before they fully assess what they have. However, an assessment of existing tree resources can help point out needs that might not be obvious, and will help the community to establish appropriate goals.

Since the urban forest resource and the external factors that affect it are continually changing, developing a management strategy must be an ongoing process. Asking a fourth question helps to bring the process full circle:

Miller (1988) represents this phase as a feedback step which connects the third question back to the first. If the planning process is to be effective, it is necessary to determine whether you actually achieve what you want. If not, methods for getting what you want may need to be changed. Alternatively, it is possible that what you get is no longer what you want, and goals will need to be revised as well.

We can define a number of specific steps that address each of these four basic questions. These steps have been defined in similar ways by various authors (Lobel 1983, Miller 1988, Jennings 1978, McPherson and Johnson 1988, World Forestry Center and Morgan 1989). For the purposes of our discussion, we recognize seven distinct steps which are discussed below.

Working through these steps need not be overly complicated or arduous. The entire process is driven by the specific resources and goals of the individual community. By following the process outlined below, a small community with very modest tree management goals can develop a simple ordinance that addresses its limited goals. On the other hand, communities seeking to develop a comprehensive tree management program or expand their existing programs can do so following the same process. Ordinances developed through this process will be uniquely suited to the needs of each community.