This is the second in a series of articles concerning tree conservation in the District.
In the landmark environmental law case Sierra Club v. Morton (1972), Justice William O. Douglas famously argued that inanimate objects such as trees ought to have the ability “to sue for their own preservation.” The Urban Forest Preservation Act, enacted by the District of Columbia City Council in 2002, bears some resemblance to Douglas’s vision. But critics argue that the Council recently reduced the Act to firewood in the 2011 budgetary furnace.
The Urban Forest Preservation Act offers special protection to District trees with a circumference of 55 inches (17.5 inches in diameter). With certain exceptions–e.g., the tree poses a high risk of failure and property–protected trees may not be cut down without first securing a permit. Failure to properly secure a permit results in a minimum fine of $5,500. A permit may only be secured if the contractor agrees to plant replacement trees or pay into the “Tree Fund.” The Tree Fund money is designated exclusively towards the planting of replacement trees in the District and similar purposes.
However, the District’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget would drain $539,000 from the Tree Fund and redirect the money to the general fund. The scheme angers Maisie Hughes, the Director of Planning and Design for Casey Trees, a District non-profit that seeks to protect and enhance the city’s tree canopy by planting trees, providing education courses, and monitoring the city’s tree conservation actions. Hughes believes that the Council has executed a “bait and switch” on D.C. voters, who were persuaded to support the creation of the Tree Fund based on the promise that the fines and permit fees from severed trees would be devoted exclusively to conservation efforts. It would be a “breach of the public trust” and “technically illegal” for the Council to use the Tree Funds for anything other than the purposes stated in the Urban Forest Preservation Act, Hughes said.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells’s office provided the following explanation for the legislative maneuver: The city faced a $600 million shortfall. Mayor Adrian Fenty submitted a proposed budget that shifted dollars from a number of environmental funds to cover the budget gap. Councilmember Wells worked with Councilmember Mary Cheh to “restore millions of dollars back to their intended purposes, including the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund, the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund, the Renewable Energy Incentive Program funds and the MS4 funds–all geared to make environmental impacts whether cleaning and restoring the Anacostia River, creating economic incentives for home and business renewable energy improvements, or reducing stormwater run-off.” The Tree Fund didn’t make the cut of funds to replenish, but Wells will seek to restore the Tree Fund as soon as possible.
“The quantifiable benefits that increased tree coverage produces should not be dismissed by the Council in an attempt to plug a $500 million budget shortfall of their own making.” — Jim DeMartino, Ward 6 candidate for D.C. City Council
Jim DeMartino, an attorney in the District challenging Wells in November for his Council seat, isn’t buying the story. “The quantifiable benefits that increased tree coverage produces should not be dismissed by the Council in an attempt to plug a $500 million budget shortfall of their own making,” DeMartino said in a statement provided by his campaign manager. DeMartino added: “I realize that we face extraordinary fiscal pressures due to the DC Council’s inability to control wasteful spending and its unwillingness to make the necessary budget cuts but one must ask, will taking $500,000 from a project whose short- and long-term results clearly show a benefit, really help bridge a $500 million gap?” Kelvin J. Robinson, Wells’s insurgent primary challenger, didn’t let his fellow Democrat off the hook either: “I believe the practice of raiding special purpose funds is a short sighted way to solve the District’s budget problems.”
As for Councilwomen Cheh, Dave Hedgepeth, a Republican attorney running against Cheh for the Ward 3 council seat, was critical of her role in the Tree Fund budgetary shift: “If elected I will vote against any budget that redirects funds designated for special purposes to the general fund. It’s no wonder why the public distrusts politicians–such cynical maneuvering demonstrates that the DC Council is willing to abandon its ideals to avoid making politically difficult choices.” Cheh did not formally respond, but a source within her office offered assurance that the District’s conservation plans would not be adversely affected by the funding allocation because “spending levels are expected to hold steady, not decline.
Jennifer Nguyen, a spokesperson for Mayor Fenty, stated that the administration expects to plant approximately 8,000 trees this year using a combination of District and federal funds, and this trajectory of tree planting will continue in 2011. However, she declined to comment in response to questions concerning why the funds were shifted out of the Tree Fund and whether the now-former tree funds be used for matters unrelated to tree conservation.
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