Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Compensating For The Cutting Of A Tree

The head of the association for billboard companies ended the extended remarks he was allowed to make at the end of a recent hearing held in Asheville NC by castigating trees as the cause of global warming.

Ironically, according to myriad facts found in a new book by Jim Robbins, trees sequester half of all terrestrial stores of carbon, “more than any other single source on land” and only release it into the atmosphere if they die or are poisoned or clear-cut by billboard companies, such as is newly permitted here in North Carolina.

I’m sure glad that some of the stupid things I may have said over the years aren’t captured in tapes of public hearings.  Some readers probably think I get to put them in this blog instead (smile.)Charlotte

I blogged recently that trees could be better protected if it were deemed more expensive to cut them down based both on their value and the harm brought to others than by prohibiting the same practice, a belief shaped during my reading of a book by economist Robert H. Frank during my recently completed cross-country road trip.

Some people may have mistaken this comment to mean that I was only advocating taxation when, in fact I was pointing to the fact that the two legislators who pushed through the legislation granting clear-cutting to billboard companies (one now indicted for other reasons) not only stripped out local protections at the last minute, despite reassurances during deliberations but erased the fiscal note detailing the tens of millions of dollars in destruction of public property enabled under the legislation long with elimination of any requirement to pay for this public property or to replant.

Billboard companies may represent one of the most egregious examples of unwarranted and destructive tree-cutting but they are hardly the only culprits, most of whom do it in violation of local ordinances and other laws and then claim “inadvertence” risking only a slap on the wrist or the requirement to replant trees that are worth a pittance compared to the value of the trees that were cut.

According to Robbins’ book, “over a fifty-year lifetime, a tree provides $162,000 in ecosystem services, including $62,000 in air pollution control and $31,250 in soil erosion.”  This doesn’t factor in other benefits benefits from trees such as atmospheric cooling, facilitation of rainfall, protection from radiation, reduction in crime including domestic abuse or increases to property values.

Needless tree-cutting could be dramatically curbed by placing an assessment in the amount of the true value of the trees or, in the case of a development, a reinvestment equal to the value of the trees cut back into reforestation or afforestation (places where they have not recently grown) either at the same location or very nearby.

A decade ago, The Streets at Southpoint in Durham NC, where I live, transplanted four huge trees at a cost of $10,000 each to give the then-new and now-acclaimed retail complex added value and aesthetics.  Three have survived.

Coupled with inflation, that value provides a gauge for compensatory value of reforestation or afforestation equal to the value of the trees that are eliminated either through either illegal-cutting or for development.

Here is a recent example:  After North Carolina’s new legislation a billboard company rushed under temporary regulatory rules to clear cut three dozen or so large trees along Erwin Creek in Charlotte NC where it runs along I 77.  It even reportedly had to pay $1,700 to chop down one tree because it was particularly large, probably more than 50 inches in diameter.

The cutting has greatly exacerbated soil erosion along the creek and threatens businesses and homeowners because the trees aren't there to capture and slow run off.  The billboard pays less than a hundred dollars in property taxes based only on the value of construction materials not the value charged to advertisers.

Obviously, the State should have listened to Charlotte officials and declined the permit in the first place.  The billboard company has been asked to do some replanting and I can only imagine what size those trees will be.

Truly conservative restitution using the value Robbins noted should be over $5 million.  But using just the value related to curbing soil erosion control, it should be at a minimum $1.1 million.

Only when the cost of cutting trees, legally or illegally, requires compensating the public for the detriment it brings to others will tree-cutting be inhibited and the free market be fully able to work its magic.

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