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Drop the Ax

Send Wealthy Tree Killers to Jail

Rich homeowners are cutting or poisoning trees for a better view and even better profit. Weak fines won’t stop them.

Tree branch cut
Gabe Souza/Portland Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

It was an ugly sight at Niles Pond. Trees and bushes—blueberry, sweet pepperbush—had been chopped in half or simply destroyed, leaving a part of the shoreline with a ragged and bereft appearance. But it wasn’t just a bad look: The eradication of so much plant life disrupts a delicate ecosystem; many migratory birds and local wildlife—including muskrats, beavers, and turtles—depend on the vegetation. And the pond itself was supposed to enjoy some protections as a Massachusetts Great Pond.

Outraged neighbors and local birdwatchers in Gloucester quickly discovered the truth. In early spring, the owner of a nearby mansion had the trees kneecapped—including many that were not even legally on her lot—to produce a view of the pond from her estate. Worse still, it was then revealed that she planned to flip the house, making it clear that this assault on the local ecosystem didn’t even stem from a relatable (if selfish) desire to sip a glass of Sancerre while gazing at pleasing scenery. Rather, it was an act of pure greed: She wanted to add another million or so to her home value.

My father lives nearby, so I visit the area often, spending many of my life’s happiest hours gaping at yellow warblers around Niles Pond. I took this crime personally, but I figured it was just a bizarre, isolated act of real estate derangement.

Then in late June, the Associated Press ran a story about a couple in Camden, Maine, who poisoned a neighbor’s trees—again, for the million-dollar view. Locals were particularly outraged because the couple—Arthur and Amelia Bond, same family as former U.S. Senator Kit Bond—used an extremely toxic herbicide, which is now contaminating the town’s only beach, as well as a neighboring park.

It turns out this genre of plutocratic slaughter is surprisingly common. In 2018, there was an epidemic of tree poisonings with this same motive—a better view and better home resale value—around Geneva Lake, Wisconsin. And a New Jersey executive, early this year, pleaded guilty to removing 32 of this neighbors’ trees, the better to see the New York City skyline. There are many more examples.

With trees so critical—not only to wildlife conservation but to cooling the warming planet and improving human well-being—it’s time to protect them more aggressively, especially from assailants with such base and frivolous motives. How? Perhaps the best solution, but also one of the least likely, is more serious taxation to prevent this arrogant class from persisting in the first place. A large body of research shows that through their lifestyles—private jets, proliferation of large homes—and investments, rich people are a huge climate threat compared to the poor. But since they currently do exist, and unfortunately will for the foreseeable future, we need to protect the environment from their entitlement. The monied poisoners and butchers of trees at least deserve to be fined millions—and if they don’t pay, be forced to perform the hard labor of tree-planting in the hot sun. Some of them even ought to be imprisoned.

The most high-profile examples of criminal prosecution on behalf of trees involve men acting out for eccentric reasons, rather than profit. In 1990, a repeat felon and lovelorn drug addict who, as part of an occult ritual, poisoned a 500-year-old oak tree in Austin, Texas, was sentenced to nine years in prison. In another incident, a fan of University of Alabama football served time in prison on a felony damage charge for poisoning oak trees on the campus of rival Auburn in 2010 after his team suffered a bitter defeat; he used the same herbicide that the Bonds used in Maine.

In contrast, the wealthy people who commit such crimes are punished lightly, usually with fines that are much too low to deter others of their ilk. In 2017 and 2018, the city of Seattle settled with homeowners who had cut down 153 trees on public property to improve their own views and only ended up paying a fine of $5,229 per tree. The conservation commission in Gloucester is making the perpetrator pay some fines, as well as the cost of replanting, but the commission’s minutes suggest that the owner—or at least the company she hired to repair the damage—is trying to get away with keeping some of the plantings short to preserve the property’s view.

Nature itself—and the public interest—are the true victims here, yet rather than defend its interests and truly shame the perpetrators, governments and courts have been more concerned with the impact of such actions on other rich property owners. The New Jersey executive may pay over a million to his neighbor in restitution, but in fines to his town he will only pay about $700 per tree. The Bonds, in Maine, similarly have paid over $1.5 million to their wronged neighbor—an LL Bean heiress—but less than a quarter of a million dollars to the injured public, which deserves better. To many locals, it reflects the entitlement of rich people in the area. “They just pay the fine because they have plenty of money,” one Camden man told the AP.

Tree law is complicated and varies dramatically from one municipality to the next, but some communities in the United States are considering how to crack down on the particular crime of killing trees for the view. Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control is not allowed to levy fines of more than $4,500, a problem that legislators are now seeking to remedy, perhaps with a sliding scale reflecting damage and intentions. Others here—and in Australia—are weighing criminal prosecution. There is precedent. Courts could punish a rich tree murderer as severely as an extreme football fan. It’s not usual, but it’s happened. In 2015, a developer in Bellevue, Washington, was sentenced to 45 days in prison for using salt to poison 123 poplars that blocked the views of high-end properties he was trying to sell. He proposed community service instead of prison, but the judge rejected that idea, instead giving him an even longer jail sentence than the prosecution had asked for, seeking, she told him, to send “an appropriate message … to our community about the way we view your actions.”

The judge was right. Trees can live for hundreds of years, cooling the weather, reducing carbon, providing habitat for animals, and making humans happier for generations to come. Our legal system should defend them fiercely.