My Two Cents: One last tree hug

The city of Hyattsville sometimes has to make hard decisions about cutting down trees. Lesley Riddle, the director of Public Works for the city, is a certified aborist and is part of the decision making process.

BY LESLEY RIDDLE — I have always been a tree hugger. Growing up in northern New Jersey, I was surrounded by old-growth trees, much like those in the City of Hyattsville. I remember the two giants that graced our own front yard, a magnificent eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and a horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). Both were as old, if not older, than the federal-style home where my family lived, and bloomed gloriously each spring. I would sit under their limbs in awe, sure that they were sentient beings, and as much as the humans, dogs and cats I lived with, members of my family. So I felt awful when I learned years later that both trees had been removed. My parents were retired by then, and the property had been sold more than once. I’m told the chestnut was weak when taken out, while the hemlock was removed to make space for development. I never got to say goodbye to either of them, my childhood friends.

But as a certified arborist here in Hyattsville, I am living out one of my childhood dreams. With a team of others— on city staff and industry experts we work with — I monitor the health needs of our city’s trees. The irony is that sometimes means that I’m now the one deciding trees have to be removed.

It’s a decision we take very seriously, and is one that often takes years. Still, residents say to me, “But that was a perfectly good tree — why did you remove it?” My answer often has to do with pathogens inside the tree — fatal, but unobservable on the outside. In fact, trees can remain standing for years with heartwood or failed root systems, only to tumble in a strong storm. But such tumbles can take human life, too, which is why my team has to be proactive. It’s also why we recommend that residents who are concerned about trees on their own property contact an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.

At the same time, we have policies in place to protect our tree canopy. Per Hyattsville’s Urban Forest Ordinance, if a tree on private property measures 50 inches in circumference at the 4.5-foot level in a front garden, or 75 inches at the 4.5-foot level in the rear garden, a permit is needed for its removal. Once a permit application is filed with the city, we send it to the tree board, which is made up of residents who are passionate about saving our canopy. The board has 45 days to complete the initial review and inspection and, once complete, send their findings to the city arborists. Then, and at any time during the process, the arborists may review the application and inspect the tree. If the tree removal is approved, a permit is issued for display at the permit holder’s address. If residents witness a tree being removed that fits the description above, but no permit is displayed, they should call the city to inform us.

The loss of a large tree is always sad, regardless of the circumstances of its removal. I still remember the first tree I recommended for removal — a large willow oak (Quercus phellos), here in a park in Prince George’s County. Its canopy was almost entirely dead. A lightning strike created a wound that stretched from the uppermost branches to the bottom of the tree. Still, as children played, mothers sat with their babies, and dog walkers eyed me with wonder, I lifted both my hands to its trunk and quietly said goodbye.

Lesley Riddle is the director of Public Works for the City of Hyattsville. She plans to host an event for the public to meet with city arborists in the late winter or early spring.