The little-noticed job of Town Tree Warden

Thetford will soon appoint a new Tree Warden. With 49 miles of roads to inventory, it appears their work is already cut out for them.

The little-noticed job of Town Tree Warden
Areas of Vermont infested with emerald ash borer. Each infested area represents a 10-mile radius around a verified ash borer infestation. Severity of infestation is indicated on a color spectrum with red indicating most severe, and yellow, least severe.

Buried in the Thetford Town Report’s list of Appointed Officers is the line “Tree Warden: 1-year term,” followed by the word “vacant.” Indeed, at the time of printing, that post was not yet filled.

Few people pay attention to this position. To some it may sound like a quaint holdover like “Viewer of Fences,” an echo of Vermont’s agrarian past, or “Weigher of Coal” — someone “… who shall not be directly or indirectly interested in the sale of coal” but who “... shall weigh all coal sold in his or her town.”  A Town Scale was required to fulfill this office.

The law authorizing towns to appoint a Tree Warden dates back to 1904.  Under the original law, the Tree Warden was in charge of “shade trees in town,” but it omitted to define which trees were included under the statute. In some towns this lack of clarity resulted in bitter disputes and even lawsuits. 

In a particularly notorious case, farmers in Ferrisburg, Addison County, were charged with illegally cutting trees, even though the trees were on their own property. The neighbors complained that a contractor had been hired to remove over 2,000 trees that formed a canopy along a three-quarters of a mile stretch of road. Because the trees were in a town road right-of-way, the Ferrisburg tree warden wrote that the farmers could be liable for a very large fine based on a penalty of up to $500 per tree. The case dragged on for nearly three years, eventually going before the Vermont Environmental Court and costing the town over $63,000 in legal and mediation fees. A few rounds of mediation settled the case without going to trial. The farmers failed to limit the definition of “shade tree” to trees planted by the town for the purpose of providing shade. The settlement clarified that, under the law that protects highways, landowners are obliged to obtain a Section 1111 permit to perform work in a road right-of-way and supported the Town’s actions in upholding the law.

It was probably this case that prompted the legislature to include new legislation in Act 171 that updated the laws governing trees in public ways and places. Other amendments define how trees may be removed and how they are managed on both public and private land.

Importantly, a shade tree is now defined thus: "“Shade tree” means a shade or ornamental tree located in whole or in part within the limits of a public way or public place, provided that the tree was planted by the municipality or is designated as a shade tree pursuant to a municipal shade tree preservation plan pursuant to section 2502 of this title.”

The term “public way” refers to the Town or State road right-of way. There is a general understanding of its dimensions: Vermont Statutes, Title 19, Section 702 reads, “the right-of-way for each highway and trail shall be three rods wide unless otherwise properly recorded. A rod is a unit of measure equaling 16.5 feet, so the assumed minimum width of the right-of-way is 49.5 feet. This total minimum width extends evenly (24.75 feet) on both sides of the highway centerline.” It is noteworthy that the statute goes on to say: “The three-rod figure, however, is merely a placeholder in case other information is not available. In most situations there is information, and the right-of-way is often wider than 49.5 feet.”

Under this statute a shade tree preservation plan may map locations or zones within the municipality “where all trees in whole or in part within a public way or place shall be designated as shade trees; and designate as a shade tree any tree in whole or in part within a public way, provided that the tree warden and legislative body of the municipality find that the tree is critical to the cultural, historical, or aesthetic character of the municipality.”

The new law requires that all towns have a tree warden  unless a town’s charter states otherwise. However the Tree Warden need not be a town resident.

All designated shade trees within the municipality are the responsibility of the Tree Warden. And there is a public safety aspect to the Tree Warden’s duties, in addition to caring for aesthetics and shade. It’s their job to determine the process for removing diseased, dying, or dead shade trees, as well any shade trees that create a hazard to public safety.

This latter duty has complicated the lives of Tree Wardens. That’s because ash trees are dying across Vermont in large numbers as a result of the emerald ash borer, an introduced pest that is spreading throughout the state. It kills ash trees in 1-5 years. The ash is a widespread species that comprises about 5% of all trees in Vermont. There are many ash trees in the right-of-way of state and town roads, and it’s predicted that most of them will sooner or later become infected and die. While ash borer has not yet been identified in Thetford, data from the Vermont Urban and Community Forest Program indicates that towns on either side are most likely infested. 

The cost of removing dying ash trees is a concern to municipal governments. The Vermont Urban and Community Forest Program reports that one tree can cost between $85 and $3500 to remove. Factors that contribute to expense include size and degree of danger in the condition of the tree, plus proximity to power lines and buildings. To prepare for these expenses many towns are performing inventories of roadside ash trees, which is performed by the Tree Warden, in some cases with help from the Conservation Commission or other volunteers. An inventory is recommended to facilitate realistic management of ash borer by assessing impact to public spaces, prioritizing removals, and budgeting for tree removal. While chemical treatment of ash trees is feasible, it entails pumping pesticide into the tree, which will kill not only ash borer, but any insect that feeds on the ash tree, including 100 or so moth species whose larvae (caterpillars) feed on ash trees. Caterpillars are an essential food for baby songbirds because they are soft, easily swallowed, and high in protein. It’s concerning that birds could feed their young with pesticide-tainted caterpillars from treated ash trees.

Thetford will soon appoint a new Tree Warden. With 49 miles of roads to inventory, it appears their work is already cut out for them.

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