By Anu Yagi
When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
-Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)
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When it comes to urban forestry, there’s no adversary but logistics and safety. It’s 2012, man–and we’re all Seuss’s Lorax, speaking for the trees. But if we’re a community of tree huggers–not tree haters–why is saving urban trees so complicated? The root of the problem is foresight–particularly as our burgeoning urban jungle entwines with the real wild.
Since last spring, the isle’s latest battle to save leafy leviathans of the land has been waged in bustling Kihei Town, located along the leeward skirt of Haleakala (a mountain that makes up roughly 75 percent of Maui, infamously deforested centuries ago). Bold green paint on cardboard signs begged Maui County to “STOP THE CHOP.” This was the plea of concerned Kihei residents who protested under the very lives they advocated for: four massive monkeypod trees outside the Maui Schooner Resort on South Kihei Road.
These four old denizens of the South Maui desert were on the chopping block because of the threat their root systems pose to surrounding infrastructure that’s grown alongside them. Having bowed and broken the concrete sidewalk at their trunks’ base, the trees had been deemed a pedestrian “tripping hazard” (read: liability).
Beloved for their broad, domed canopies, monkeypod trees (Albizia saman) boast delicate fireworks of fuchsia-and-cream color blossoms. The decomposition of their licorice-ish-flavored legumes helps put nitrogen back into the soil, aided by the trees’ nyctinastic leaf movements (meaning leaflets close at night and under cloud cover, allowing rain to pass thoroughly through trees’ crowns). A Neotropics native, the monkeypod has been naturalized in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands–prolifically so in Hawaii.
“The [monkeypod] tree was reportedly introduced into Hawaii in 1847 [and] the entire population may be the progeny of only two seeds,” writes Roger G. Skolmen in a publication for the US Forest Service, citing an anonymous entry in a 1938 edition of the Honolulu-based Sales Builder (a mid-century illustrated monthly focused on the advancement of industry and agriculture).
Over the years, patchwork attempts were made to resurface the area surrounding the four trees–efforts which were largely ineffectual. So county officials decided that the trees needed to be removed entirely. Although plans included planting new trees at a safer distance from roadside paths, aesthetic-and eco-minded Mauians attested that it’d be a tragedy to lose the mature monkeypods, regardless of whether they were replaced.
So the fate of the Sout Kihei Road “monkeypod quartet” (as it became lovingly dubbed) became an issue with as high a profile as the trees themselves. Activists staged protests, wrote letters and articles and sought specialists’ second opinions. The Kihei Community Association even formed a “Street Tree Committee” to assist in community planning.
The Maui County Arborist Committee voted to recommend that the four trees (plus 10 more, across the street, fronting the Luana Kai Resort) be designated “exceptional,” protected under law from being cut down or injured. But it’s just a recommendation; the officiality of which is pending an ordinance via the Maui County Council.
Other trees on the growing list of Exceptional Trees of Maui County include a 45-foot-tall ulu (breadfruit) tree planted on Lahaina’s Front Street by Reverend Dwight D. Baldwin in the early 1800’s; its famous neighbor, the nearly 140-year-old banyan tree canopying the Lahaina Courthouse Square; and 85 rainbow shower trees along a stretch of Baldwin Avenue, among others.
By summer’s end, the community cheered the county for its open communication and coordination, and the battle cry “Save the Trees” became the victory dance “Saved the Trees.”
Well, kind of.
The trees are safe–for the time being.
“One of the trees is just too close to a fire hydrant,” said Rod Antone, the county’s communications director. “So for that tree, it’s not a matter of if it’ll come down, it’s a matter of when.”
What’s more, Kihei is notoriously affected by floodwaters from heavy rain, and the monkeypod quartet in question was exactly the sticking point that halted a decade-old Public Works road improvement project aimed at mitigating flood damage by addressing drainage and expanding culvert capacities.
“The Kihei Drainage Master Plan is underway and recommendations would come from that multi-year effort,” said David Goode, director of the county’s Department of Public Works. So as project design is being revisited–now largely with input from a community trying to balance both their own and the trees’ livelihoods–the South Kihei Road monkeypods will grow on.
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But if you think all that’s tricky, consider the plight of Kihei resident Katherine LeVan, who last month received a notice that a monkeypod tree on her property was in violation of Chapter 12.12 (drainage ways) of the Maui County Code. The issue with LeVan’s backyard tree may not be as public–and therefore not as publicized–but it’s still an urban tree on Death Row.
The notice of violation was dated Nov. 25, and stated that if “corrective action” (i.e. the removal of the monkeypod) was not taken by Dec. 9, she’d be forced to pay the county’s Development Services Administration fines in the amount of $50 per day, in addition to an initial fine.
“[LeVan] came to us when she received the notice of violation,” said Peter Hume of the Wailuku law firm Cain & Herren. “She had never seen such a thing and neither had we. Due to its location, it would be very difficult to get machinery to the tree; and at least one removal service quoted [the cost] in excess of $5,000.” Hume added that the removal would also destroy a retaining wall on the property.
“Our first questions was, does the tree really have to come down?” said Hume. “But that led us to wonder, who is responsible for this tree? It is technically on [LeVan’s] property–but then again, the tree was there before the house was built. Any number of planners, engineers, surveyors, developers, and previous homeowners would surely have dealt with this issue already. When [LeVan] bought the property 10 years ago, there was no discussion of her new role as partial caretaker of the drainage way beyond her backyard. But since the tree exists, and she does nothing to prevent its existence, she technically ‘maintains’ the tree, which is against the County Code, in this instance.”
When asked how property owners–or prospective property owners–are notified of their responsibilities when their parcel is adjacent to a county drainage way, Goode said that it “depends on what type of easement is on the land, or if an easement is on the property. Outside of that, there is a law not to block drainage ways, and common sense would dictate not to alter a drainage way.”
“To put it in very blunt terms,” said Hume, “the question at hand is: when there’s a lot of surface water and/or stormwaters flowing through [LeVan’s] neighborhood–and there’s enough to create a flow into this drainage way–does the tree affect the flow of water in such a way that it will negatively affect the neighborhood? We believe the answer is no.” Further, Hume added that “we’re also aware that the parcel of land uphill from this area was slated for development, which could cause significant changes in how the waters flow in and around the neighborhood below it.”
For his part, Goode is skeptical about the tree not negatively affecting the neighborhood. “We are asking them to either prove to us that the tree does not affect neighboring and downstream properties or, if acceptable to our legal counsel, insure us such that we are not liable should flooding occur and it is determined the tree had a negative affect to a flooding situation,” he said.
So Hume decided to take “an old-school field research approach [by] walking the ditch from the top of [LeVan’s] neighborhood to the bottom”–where the drainage way ends abruptly at the tree root-rendered roller coaster-ride-of-a-parking lot behind the Kihei’s land-o-bars known best as “The Triangle.” Hume argues “despite its variations in depth and width, it is a consistent drainageway that manages to channel the excess flow through that area. [LeVan] has lived through several heavy flood seasons at that location, and has photographic evidence that the drainage way works very effectively, particularly behind her house.”
The issue is still complicatedly ongoing; but as with the monkeypods on South Kihei Road, the fate of LeVan’s tree is hopeful.
“The county has been very easy to communicate with,” said Hume. “We were pleasantly surprised that the civil engineers cared about the tree, too. More importantly, they cared about giving [LeVan] the opportunity to look more closely at the matter. A willingness to look at the big picture is so important in situations like this, and we were happy to find the county of like mind.”
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Scottish poet Alexander Smith once wrote that “A man does not plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity.” Taken literally, that’s dandy but for the irony of how–as is oft the case of urban trees–the very heirs apparent to a tree’s beautiful bounty might one day be threatened by it.
So maybe we need to plan in such a way that our Loraxian causes aren’t just reactionary. Then again, the fact that we care for the cause at all bodes well for a species that–while we know its a sin to kill a monkeypod (or any other tree)–still wipes the crap from our assess with soft wads of pulp paper (and if I may self-flaggelate, also prints newspapers and the like). Hey, problems need solutions and solutions take time.
So, yeah. Saving our urban trees is–and will remain–a complicated process; and perhaps rightly so. Nothing worth fighting for comes easy.