Historically, the Key West tree canopy boasted little in the way of showy shade trees. We are an inhospitable, oolite limestone island in the middle of salt water. What green things we had were more scraggly than soaring, the results of birds and other creatures using the island as a bathroom while stopping over on ways elsewhere.
Then came the 1920s and 1930s, when garden clubs and botanical societies held tree giveaways and encouraged folks to bring back seedlings from their travels. Stick ’em in the ground and hope for the best.
That’s how we ended up with so many mahoganies, poincianas and other canopy trees we take for granted; they didn’t spring up magically; we brought them in; we planted them. Sadly, too often, not in the right place. Few got the care they’d need to live long lives in sketchy locations between houses, next to (or in) the sidewalks or at the corners of tiny yards. Then we built houses and pools and streets right on top of their roots. We assumed they’d live forever.
Today, the Key West tree canopy faces two life-threatening challenges: (1) The trees planted 75-100 years ago are struggling; many will not live more than a few more years; and (2) Florida’s determination to strip municipalities of their Home Rule powers.
Why can’t we manage the Key West tree canopy?
So what can we do? First some context.
On June 26, 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis gutted Florida tree commission regulations when he signed HB 1159. That law prohibits municipalities from requiring “notice, application, approval, permit, fee, or mitigation for the pruning, trimming, or removal of a tree on residential property if the property owner obtains documentation from an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture or a Florida licensed landscape architect that the tree presents a danger to persons or property.” The law also prohibits municipalities from requiring homeowners to replant if they remove a “danger” tree.
Over the past three years, Florida tree commissions, including Key West’s, have sought ways to protect their canopies while staying inside the proscribed property rights lanes. The legislature made one thing clear: Property rights for a “danger” tree trump the canopy. The legislature did not, however, make clear what it meant when it used the phrase “tree presents a danger to persons or property.”
Then, during its regular 2022 session, the Florida legislature amended the 2019 law to replace “danger” with “unacceptable risk.” It said a tree poses an unacceptable risk “if removal is the only means of practically mitigating its risk below moderate as, determined by the tree risk assessment procedures outlined in (ISA) Best Management Practices — Tree Risk Assessment, Second Edition (2017).” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB518 on May 18, 2022. It goes into effect on July 1, 2022.
We can strengthen the Key West tree canopy
On July 1, when the amended law is in place, municipalities can use it to claw back some local control over tree removal. The amendment can become the first of four ways we can work together to strengthen the Key West tree canopy.
- File Ethics Violations with the ISA: Florida’s law requires the tree risk assessment, which includes a detailed, on-site review, be done by ISA certified tree experts. Signing a deliberately inaccurate assessment is an ISA ethics violation. ISA will investigate and can pull the certification. No certification; no work. Key West (and I’ll leave it generic) knows exactly which of the certified tree experts in town are signing off on trees as a “danger” when, in fact, they are not. It’s time to remove the unethical; they are a danger to the canopy.
- Approve removal permit requests and require replacement — on property whenever possible: The amended law, like its predecessor, forbids municipalities from requiring replacement of “unacceptable risk” trees (or fees in lieu of replacement). But if a homeowner can’t get a certified tree expert to certify that a protected tree is an “unacceptable risk,” then said homeowner needs a permit from the tree commission. That’s where the rock-and-hard place comes in. If the Tree Commission says “no,” and if there’s an unethical tree expert or some fly by night dude with a chain saw, that tree is coming down. No replacement. If the Tree Commission grants the permit, it can (and does) require replacement. You might not like that “gun to our head” stuff, but I far prefer to get a tree replaced than to have it chopped down over night.
- Declare a ceasefire on blaming the city: Gheesh, folks, read the law. The state’s tree commissions aren’t the enemy. It’s the state’s appetite for preemption. Let’s direct our frustrations where they belong. At the state level. Join other groups in other Florida municipalities to advocate for our canopy. Plant the right tree in the right place — and take care of it. Too many of us love the planting, but forgo the costly and ceaseless maintenance. Encourage the city to increase the public works budget to allow for better care of trees planted on public property, like the cemetery.
- Plant the right trees in the right places: Over the past 10 years Ranger Ed and I have created what amounts to a hardwood hammock. We baby the buccaneer palm, because it has the worrisome fungus that is killing buccaneers across Florida. Our three-foot lignum vitae started as a seedling from a Key West friend’s backyard. The ranger and I will be dead before it outgrows its pot, but it is, indeed, a beautiful thing. The red stopper, the coonties, the myrtles of the river, the Jamaica caper, the huge shade canopy from the sabal palms, the coffees and the black thorns have created the perfect habitat for white crowned pigeons, butterflies, honey bees and more lizardy-things than we can count. And not one is a danger to people or property.
And, perhaps most of all, we can stop using the word “protect.” Instead, let’s strengthen the canopy with a staggered-schedule, multi-species replanting of the right trees in the right places. I’d rather see today’s failing poinciana cut down and replaced with a strong, healthy youngster who stands a chance of blooming for 50 years to come.
Now for my conflicts of interest disclaimer: Ranger Ed is one of the city’s tree commissioners. He’s president of the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. He is an ISA certified tree expert. He has his own consulting business, Tree Priorities. And, unlike the Thomases of U.S. Supreme Court fame, Ranger Ed and I do talk about trees. A lot. Oh, and I am chair of the Monroe County Comprehensive Land Plan Authority Advisory Committee. We spend millions of dollars each year purchasing environmentally sensitive land in the Keys.