What Does A Tree Warden Do? New Law Aims To Clarify

Nov 16, 2020

The law that gives Vermont’s tree wardens authority to trim or remove trees in the public way is more than 100-years-old. This year, the Legislature made its first substantial changes to the statute since it was passed more than a century ago.

Tree wardens are appointed by municipal governments, and they're authorized to make decisions about public - or private - trees that grow or hang over public spaces.

For a very long time, the tree warden’s job was viewed in the same light as other quaint and outdated municipal positions, like the "weigher of coal" or the "fence viewer".

But Vermont Forests, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael Snyder says there’s a growing recognition that trees, especially in our towns and cities, need all the help they can get.

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“The world has changed. The role of green infrastructure, the green stuff in our built spaces, is really important,” Snyder said. “And ever more so with climate change, with resilience needs, and with these invasive pests, pathogens, plants.”

Snyder says there's a need to better coordinate a plan for combatting invasive insects like the emerald ash borer, which burrows into trees below the bark and kills them.

And he hopes the new law makes it easier for towns to get help.

A dearth of tree wardens

Under the new legislation towns will be asked to register the names of their tree wardens with the state, which Snyder says will make it easier to get technical assistance out to them and better organize a statewide response to invasive species.

Under the new law, it’s now legal to hire a tree warden who lives outside of your town, which was prohibited in the 1904 law. Snyder said this will hopefully lead to more open positions being filled.

Only about half of the towns and cities in Vermont currently have a tree warden

Over the years, disputes have arisen over the orignal law, including one high-profile lawsuit in Addison County, where a farmer removed trees in a move the local warden claims was illegal.

"Someone has to represent the trees, because they can't represent themselves, and that's the town tree warden." - Dan Adams, Brattleboro tree warden

Snyder said the main reason for revisiting the law was to try to resolve the inconsistencies in the statute, and update the language so towns could focus on trees rather than on trying to understand exactly what the tree warden's role is.

“The new law provides clarity, which really is important, especially when heretofore there’s been no clarity, and there’s been conflict, and that created stalemate, or worse, litigation,” Snyder said. “It gets rid of all this difficulty and allows us to embrace the power and benefit of green spaces in our built environment.”

Speaking for the trees

When the town of Brattleboro was building its new parking garage, the construction team wanted to take down a 60-year-old bitternut hickory tree.

The tree wasn’t in the way of the new garage, but it would have been easier to move the heavy machinery required for construction around if it was gone.

So the job foreman asked Dan Adams, Brattleboro’s tree warden, what he thought.

“My thought was: ‘No way, you’re not touching that tree,’” Adams said, during a recent walk around town.

Adams told them if the tree was removed, or even damaged, the company would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars.

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And so the bitternut hickory is still there, wedged between the garage and a nearby pub, providing shade and beauty, in the middle of Brattleboro’s urban landscape.

Adams has been Brattleboro’s tree warden for about twenty-five years, and the way he sees it, it’s his job to make sure people and trees can coexist.

“Someone has to represent the trees, because they can’t represent themselves, and that’s the town tree warden,” Adams said. “You know the priority is people, to keep them safe from the trees. But the next priority is trees, to keep them safe from the people.”

Shade Tree Preservation Plans

Perhaps most importantly, the new law asks towns to come up with a Shade Tree Preservation Plan, to clarify which trees come under the jurisdiction of the tree warden.

The plan is a public document, that has to be discussed in at least one public meeting, and then approved by the selectboard.

And that, according to Calais tree warden Neal Maker, will make his job much easier.

Calais tree warden Neal Maker hangs a trap to detect the emerald ash borer during work he did this summer.
Credit Stephanie Kaplan, Courtesy

“The old law, it said that the tree warden was in charge of shade trees in town, but it never defined what shade trees are,” said Maker. “And it made it very hard for the road crew to do their job because you needed approval for every tree that they need to interact with. So I’m really happy that there’s a new tree warden statute; I think it’s great.”

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Maker said Calais wants to be one of the first towns to write a shade tree plan, and he’s setting the stage for his town to start the process.

In Monkton, tree warden Mark Boltz-Robinson said his town has also been watching the Legislature and is ready to put together its own shade tree plan.

Boltz-Robinson sees an economic benefit from protecting Monkton’s trees, and making sure the town’s shady dirt roads remain a place where people want to live.

“It makes life easier [and] reduces conflict,” Boltz-Robinson said. “It shows that the community’s invested in managing and maintaining ... the different trees and the look and feel of Monkton, if you will, as a community that has an attraction for folks wanting to stay, folks wanting to move in, responsible development, you know? I can see a variety of benefits.”

The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation is developing a pilot shade tree plan and will work with ten communities in the state that want to begin creating their own.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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