Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Trees are one of the most cherished parts of the streetscape for many homeowners. So when a crew sporting chainsaws suddenly shows up on your street unannounced and refuses to answer any questions, it’s more than little worrisome.

DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration, which manages tree pruning, engages in no regular communication with residents about the work they’re going to do. Their tree crews often try their best to ignore, often quite rudely, any homeowners asking questions.

If the crews always did the right thing, this might be merely an annoyance, but they don’t. Arborists and the crews have a lot of discretion and sometimes make choices which significantly diminish the quality of a streetscape for residents. And when a crew cuts off a tree limb or removes a tree, there’s no way to get it back.

Keeping DC’s many trees alive, especially with small tree boxes, periodic utility work, the occasional drought, and assault from fungus, is a tough job. And regular maintenance and pruning is indeed important.

People I know and trust at DDOT tell me that they consider John Thomas, head of the Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) to be one of the best division heads in the agency. But for the typical homeowner, or even the homeowner who’s very involved in civic affairs like myself, we don’t get to see the excellent side of UFA.

Instead, an arborist comes by each block at some point, looks at the trees, and makes a decision that some need to be pruned. A work order goes into a system which homeowners probably won’t know anything about, and No Parking signs go up which don’t say anything about tree pruning.

Then, suddenly, some guys show up with chainsaws and start cutting off pieces of trees. If a homeowner isn’t home, they’ll come back and find potentially very unwelcome gaps in the trees; if a homeowner is around and tries to talk to the tree crew, they’ll rudely refuse and try to push the pesky questioner out of the way.

Strangely pruned tree in Logan Circle. Photo by the author.

Some tree pruning just involves taking away a few dead branches, but at least some DDOT arborists and tree crews go much farther. The last time a crew was on my block, for instance, they cut every branch of a tree within 8 feet of a house, which creates odd-looking one-sided trees like the one above in Logan Circle. I know a homeowner who lives in that area, and they were decidedly unhappy upon returning home one day to find half of this tree suddenly lopped off.

Other homeowners have found numerous trees completely removed without warning, even when experts can disagree about whether the tree is a hazard or not. Sometimes trees do need to go, no matter how beloved. But it’s not unreasonable for homeowners to want some warning to prepare themselves and get educated on the necessity first.

A crew from “Adirondack Tree Experts,” on contract to DDOT, showed up this yesterday on my block. I wanted to better understand what they were doing, but when I went out to speak to them, they pointedly ignored me until I stood too close to the area they were working. Then, they loudly insisted I move to avoid falling branches, but still refused to talk to me, only saying they were “under contract.”

I made a bunch of calls and sent some concerned tweets, after which DDOT finally sent an arborist who spoke to me. I appreciated this gesture, but would DDOT do that for everyone who doesn’t have a well-known blog? Should they? It shouldn’t take such measures to get information about tree pruning, and informing homeowners shouldn’t require a personal visit by an arborist every time.

8 feet from each house is DDOT’s “standard” for tree pruning. The arborist who came out yesterday said that just because that’s the standard, they don’t necessarily take off all branches to 8 feet. He doesn’t, he said, but that depends on the arborist. Apparently whichever arborist or tree crew handled the tree above has a different view. The same goes for the last pruning on my block.

In this case, it appears Adirondack was only removing branches that actually had some disease. Doing that keeps the tree alive, because the disease can spread to the main trunk of the tree if not nipped in the bud. A simple assurance from the tree crew that they were just going to remove a few branches, not truncate half the tree because of the 8-foot “standard,” would have meant a lot.

Sure, it’s easier for the arborists and the contractors not to talk to any homeowners. Most homeowners don’t understand trees and probably want to ask the contractor to do the wrong thing. But that doesn’t mean chainsawing people’s trees without giving them any opportunity for involvement is the right policy.

UFA does have an online spreadsheet listing upcoming work orders, except in Wards 2 (my ward) and 6, where it lists no work orders and has a last updated date from June.

It would be great if DDOT could set up an online system which lets people subscribe to alerts about tree actions on their block. Naturally, that would require some money, and DC has cut budgets, not expanded them.

UFA could also create a nice booklet explaining the issues around trees, and how to spot the signs of disease. The crews could hand those booklets out. More importantly, they could bring flyers explaining what is on the work order, what’s not and why the work needs to be done, or direct curious residents to a better Web site that also shows the details that the arborists can see.

After all, some knowledgeable arborist at UFA has synthesized data and observations, and ordered the work to be done. Chances are they had good reasons in doing so. Why not share those reasons openly with citizens?

Most of all, the crews shouldn’t treat residents who want to make sure their trees remain healthy, full and strong as annoyances. Residents who care about the trees are an asset to DC, not an obstacle. UFA could enlist them to spot problems, keep trees watered, or keep an eye out for work crews from utilities who inadvertently take actions which can damage the trees.

There’s already Canopy Keepers, which enlists residents to water young trees in their area. Unfortunately, that requires printing out and mailing or scanning a paper form. But it’s a start.

The District’s tree canopy is one of its greatest treasures.  In order to maintain and expand our city’s tree coverage, we need to find ways to make residents active partners of UFA.

Tagged: dc, ddot, trees, ufa

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.