Ecology + Design

Why Rye, Yorktown, and All of Westchester Need a (Better) Tree Ordinance

Weak Tree Ordinances Threaten Ecosystems

The trees of Westchester need our help. There have been several horrifying instances of clearcutting throughout Westchester recently, destruction that our elected officials could use their power to prevent by enacting meaningful, enforceable tree ordinances.

Lewisboro was the first town in Westchester to adopt a tree ordinance, in 1977. Many other towns adopted tree ordinances in the 80s and 90s, but most do not have sufficient enforcement and are generally too weak to have averted the recent destruction.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss, the Lorax

Rye Lorax cartoon by Chris Cohan.

Mass Mature Tree Removal in Rye, NY

A February 3rd approximately forty mature trees were cleared from a lot on Turf Lane in Rye. Rye has a weak tree ordinance, so the destruction was completely legal.

The clearcutting sparked local outrage, and the town council enacted a temporary moratorium on tree removal while a law to protect trees is drafted.

However, politics interrupted any real progress. A meeting on February 15th failed to preserve the tree removal moratorium for three more months. Three councilmen voted against the bill, three voted for it, and the mayor was absent on vacation, therefore defeating the bill. Tensions were high.

“So, any tree that comes down? It’s on the three of you,”  Councilwoman Souza reportedly reprimanded the three council people voting no. Other council people lamented how little progress had been made in over a year toward the tree protection initiative.

Meanwhile, every day passing puts Rye’s mature trees and the ecosystems they support at risk.

Rye citizens are up in arms about recent clearcutting and lack of effective tree ordinance.

ClearCutting Unchecked in Yorktown, NY

Yorktown, NY is facing similar predicament. A February 7th Examiner News Op-Ed by Yorktown resident Lisa Woodward exposed several instances of clearcutting in the last year, that seem to evade Yorktown’s existing tree ordinance. On December 23rd, her neighbor razzed a 10,000 square foot area of 80 to 100-year-old trees to create an ice-skating rink.

Woodward writes:

It’s important to note that this wooded area is located near a natural spring, a stream, wetlands, steep slopes and a brook that runs down the hill to additional wetlands and the New Croton Reservoir.

It appears that this disturbance and alteration of about 10,000 square feet of native tree canopy occurred in a protected woodland. This action has already adversely affected the area and created a muddy, degraded, unsightly wasteland that is now void of biodiversity. The most immediate devastating changes we have experienced are an increase in noise from routes 100 and 118, an increase in stormwater runoff and soil erosion. …

This brings to mind the recent bulldozing of the wooded corner lot at Route 118 and Kear Street near the medical building. The woodland edge of the existing parking lot had native hardwood trees could have been saved.  …

Another example is the area on Underhill Avenue near Town Hall, which now has the appearance of urban sprawl with missing old trees and poorly planned, uncoordinated development. 

Development is outpacing sound environmental legislation and enforcement in our communities.

A Pattern of Development and Deforestation

Mass tree removal is not isolated to Westchester County. Across New England, five percent of forest cover has been lost from 1985-2011 to deforestation, a study published by the Environmental Research Letters found.

Researchers consider New England forests to be in their second phase of deforestation, from the 1980s onward, characterized by a switch from large scale deforestation for agriculture to deforestation instigated by residential and commercial development.

As development pressures increase, there are both more trees being removed for development and a general reduction in open fields and lots for the forest to expand into. Rewilding efforts have not kept up with deforestation efforts.

“With no forest expansion to counter the deforestation, it turns out that even a small-scale rate of deforestation will have a large impact over time,” explains Pontus Olofsson, who led the Boston University study.

Emissions from deforestation combined with forgone sequestration capacity from deforestation, across the state of Massachusetts. Diagram courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

Fewer Trees, Greater Climate Change

Another report by Clark University calculated the emissions associated with New England and New York’s combined deforestation. The region is collectively releasing 4.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere through forest destruction.

Losing those trees as a carbon sink (a stable storage of carbon, that trees sequester from the atmosphere) amounts to an additional 1.2 million metric tons of CO2 that could have been sequestered, annually.

States such as Massachusetts, which has pledged to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, are realizing how this unsustainable destruction is crippling their climate mitigation efforts, two-fold. The study by Clark University is incredibly important for galvanizing climate legislature and ecological restoration initiatives.

The State of Biodiversity in Northeast Forest Ecosystems

The character of forests in the Northeast has been disturbed for decades. A study published in PLOS Onecompared land survey documents from the time of European colonization in the Northeast to modern forest data, analyzing the changes in species representation and overall composition.

Consistently across the Northeast, forests underwent a homogenization of species and a shift toward early-succession or pioneer species, such as birch, cherry, and maple  – signifying that forest disturbance is ongoing today.

Populations of late succession species including beech, hemlock and spruce dramatically reduced since colonization. Oaks also declined, which can be attributed to several factors – a shift toward a wetter climate, a lack of prescribed burning by Native Americans, and an increase in acorn-eaters, especially white-tailed deer.

The predominant species is now Red Maple throughout most of the Northeast, whereas there used to be greater ecosystem distinction between the northern and southern parts of the region. The northern states in the Northeast used to be characterized by Spruce and Fir, while the southern Northeast states had more Oaks and Hickories. Today, Maples dominate throughout, an example of regional biotic homogenization.

Hemlocks and Beech, as late succession species, confirm the persistence in forest disturbance.

“Beech and hemlock are archetypically late successional species; they are shade tolerant, slow growing, long-lived, and slow to re-colonize a site after disturbance. Based on their pre-colonial abundance, it is clear that the disturbance regime was long dominated by small canopy gaps.”

Today, Hemlock and Beech populations are also battling pests: the hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA) and beech leaf miner and beech bark disease, respectively.  Beech leaf disease is caused by a nematode and kills beeches in 2-7 years. (If you see symptoms of BLD, report it to the NY DEC.) Beech populations have declined as much as 90% in some areas.

Thin canopy of a Beech tree with Beech Leaf Disease. Photo courtesy of URI.

HWA has decimated the hemlock population, except for in the northernmost part of the region, where cold winters seem to limit its spread.

Westchester Towns Can Reverse Biodiversity Loss

Despite all this grim reporting on the state of our forests and woodlots, it can also be viewed as an opportunity. As exhibited by the many recent op-eds, residents are passionate about protecting their local trees. Now we need town council people to follow suit and draft strong, tree ordinances grounded in ecology.

For example, some towns don’t require a permit for less than ten trees removed! Ten healthy, native trees on a property are an incredible habitat resource, supporting hundreds of species of wildlife.

Best practices include requiring a permit for any tree removal in a wetland or on a steep slope. Towns such as Hastings, NY have preferred species lists for replacement trees of any removed.

It also would be beneficial to take on a more holistic approach to forestry management. Instead of allowing all trees planted at the same time to age and die together, thinning out some canopy cover to allow new saplings to thrive can greatly help regeneration on the forest floor.

Deer are a huge threat to forest health – their overpopulation threatens native shrubs and woodland perennials, leaving invasives to dominate the forest understory.

If more towns implemented bow hunting incentives for does, deer populations could be sustainably managed, and endangered forest understory species can begin to rebuild.

If woodlots are better protected, we can manage disturbance to allow native late-successional species to return to our forests.

Biodiversity can have a chance to rebound in our forests if we become champions for the trees. Without our action, the environmental character of our communities is at jeopardy.

Green Jay Landscape Design

Where Design Meets Ecology


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