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The Green Room: Washtenaw County’s Big Trees Controversy

Centuries-old trees have many benefits:  they provide habitat, absorb stormwater runoff, sequester carbon, and beautify the rural landscape.  Many of our largest got their start when buggies or farm tractors were the fastest thing on the road.  Now, in the age of speedy (and often distracted) driving, trees close to the road are being hit by drivers that lose control.  Should they be removed for safety's sake?  In the last few months, there has been much talk about this question in Washtenaw County.  The controversy continues.

David Fair (DF): This is 89-1 WEMU and I’m David Fair. When European settlers first arrived in Lower Michigan, massive old growth trees graced the landscape.  Now they are few and far between.  Rural roadways have some of our best remaining examples.  They’re much admired for their beauty and value to wildlife.  But for a car careening off the road, a tree in its path can be fatal.  IN an effort to  increase safety, the Washtenaw County Road Commission recently cut down a good number of large trees.  The community outcry was intense, and the commission has now decided to put a hold on similar projects.  In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores the continuing questions about the value and liability of our big, old trees.

Sounds of machinery at work.

Barbara Lucas (BL):  When real estate developer Stephen Ross donated money to build a new School of Business at the University of Michigan, a 5-foot diameter oak tree was in the way.  It was old—250 years old—but Bur Oaks can live to be 400 years old.  Potentially, that beautiful tree still had 150 good years left.

Spectators commenting.

BL:  So the University took a chunk of the donated money—$400,000 in fact—to move it.  It was a major feat, requiring huge machines and giant air bladders to lift and inch it to its new home.  A large crowd watched the multi-day process.  

Beeping of machinery and crowd sounds fade out.

BL:  Recently, other local landmark trees were also deemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But this time, they met a very different fate.  How did we get to this?

Crowd sounds at Township Hall.

BL:  The Webster Township Hall is packed.  People here are riled.  One after another, residents object to a Washtenaw County Road Commission project to cut trees on Mast and North Territorial Roads in Dexter, some of them oaks up to four feet in diameter.

Audience member:  We cannot replace 200-year old trees. 

BL:  During the meeting, and during a prior chat in his office, Road Commission Director Roy Townshend explains: the Commission received federal grant money to fix a failing under-the-road drainage culvert. Although much of the funding is to fix the culvert, trees must be cut within ten feet of the road to qualify for the grant.  

Roy Townshend: If you didn't, technically, you could probably jeopardize some of those federal funds.

BL:  The money comes from the High Risk Rural Road Safety program.  Townshend says these roads qualify because a higher than average number of cars have hit trees there.  In the last four years, six cars have run into trees on Mast Road, one of them fatal.  But some here don’t find that sufficient justification.

Rene Quinn: At the age of six, I lost my father to a tree.  But I don’t blame the tree, I blame my father, for going out drinking with his buddy.

BL:  Two of the six crashes on Mast Road did involve alcohol.  Speeding, deer, and cell phone use were involved in the others.  Some here tonight feel these are the problems to focus on. Washtenaw Audubon board member Cathy Theisen says large, old growth trees are crucial homes for threatened species.  The Red-headed woodpecker, the Cerulean warbler, Bald eagle, Osprey, various types of hawks…

Cathy Theisen:  There are two species of owls in Michigan right now—the Barred owl and the Great horned owl—that are already nesting and sitting on eggs.

BL:  Old growth trees not only shelter wildlife, but feed them, especially nut-bearing trees.  Naturalist Faye Stoner asks if species were taken into consideration.

Faye Stoner:  Are they hickories, are they oaks?  What kinds of oaks? 

BL:  According to Director Townshend, the only factor used to decide which trees to cut was how close to the road they were.

Townshend:  If it's in that 10-foot zone, generally we're going to take the tree down.  We really don’t look into species.  Obviously we measure all the sizes of the trees, cause that’s how the contractors get paid—but we really don't get into species, per se.

BL:   If a car runs into a big tree, it doesn’t matter the species, it’s going to hurt.  And according to the Federal Highway Administration, rural roads have over twice as many crashes as do urban roads.  They see higher incidences of alcohol and vehicle speed. Emily Kizer, Road Commission Communications Director, says a tree-free zone is needed for a “recovery area.”

Emily Kizer: So if a driver makes a mistake the idea is that a tree isn't right on the road. It gives them a chance to try to correct that mistake.

BL:  University of Michigan engineer Trudy Zedaker-Witte questions the value of cutting a 10-foot clear zone—she says a car flying off the road at 55 miles per hour will simply keep going and hit the next tree beyond it.    

Trudy Zedaker-Witte: There’s another line of trees right behind it.  So you, basically, haven’t removed the hazard, you’ve just transferred the hazard. 

BL:  Director Townshend says while it would be safer to clear a full 20-foot zone on both sides of the road, they’re trying to keep as many of the trees as possible.

Townshend: What the compromise is, we're just clearing another 10-foot from the edge of the white line, the edge of the pavement.

BL:  Resident Toni Spears feels there’s a flaw in that strategy.

Toni Spears: Looking at the data from SEMCOG, it’s really clear that by far the majority of accidents are due to deer-vehicle collisions. 

BL:  She believes the root causes of the collisions are deer and speed.  Indeed, many of the public commenters call for reducing the 55 mile per hour speed limit, instead of cutting the trees.  But the Road Commission says limits on Mast are set by Michigan’s 85th percentile law.  That stipulates if some drivers are going 55—even if only 15% of them are—then the 55 mile per hour limit must stay.   And according to speed studies, that is the case for Mast Road.

Fade sounds of township hall.

BL:  Some people have issues with this method.  Erica Briggs is executive director of Scenic Michigan, and chair of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition.  She agrees that safety is paramount.  But she says roadside trees can actually help, by countering the urge to zoom down the road.

Erica Briggs:  Research has shown the wider roadways—more lanes, more space along the roadway—encourages people to travel faster.

BL:  She points out that to calm traffic in urban areas, trees are often planted along the road.

Briggs:  Having trees along the road gives that feeling of a narrower space, and thus encouraging drivers to drive it at slower speeds.

BL:  Along with width, she says road texture, such as rumble strips, can also encourage drivers to slow down.   She says Mast Road is listed as a preferred route on the Washtenaw County Bicycle map, and Strava heat mapping shows it’s popular with non-motorists.   She points out that slowing drivers is critical not only for their safety, but for the many walkers and bicyclists who use rural roads. 

Briggs:  Of the six crashes that had been sort of laid out as reasons why the tree clearing needs to happen, those were all involving car drivers. 

BL:  She says that totally overlooks the three crashes, over a 10-year period, which involved non-motorists, including one fatal.

Briggs: It's really important to think about the vulnerable users on this roadway.  If we're doing anything that is going to increase the risk to those users—the most vulnerable users—which, taking down trees and potentially encouraging people to drive faster along there… it’s already a high-risk area for non-motorized users.

BL:  Briggs says speed decreases driver reaction time while increasing potential damage upon impact—a deadly combination.

Briggs:  The force when leaving—if you do have to veer off the road when you're travelling at high speeds—that force of impact is significantly greater as well.

BL: Briggs questions the safety of setting speed limits according to the fastest 15% of drivers.  And the speed studies, to be valid, must be performed under ideal, “free-flowing” conditions—daytime, good weather, no non-motorists sharing the road.  But the accidents are happening at night, or in bad weather, or involving pedestrians or deer.  Obviously, conditions aren’t always ideal.  Add to that, cell phones. 

Briggs: increasingly distracted, that as the sort of environment that we're driving in is changing, maybe our relationship to what roadways look like, and how we design and set speed limits, maybe that also should be evolving as well.

BL:  So while it’s agreed safety is a priority, not everyone agrees how to achieve it. And it’s not just a local issue.  There are over twice as many rural as urban roads in Michigan, and similar tree-cutting projects have been carried out elsewhere: Oakland, Lapeer, and Grand Traverse Counties.  Here in Washtenaw, at least, many citizens would like to explore alternatives that will benefit safety, as well as keep the trees. 

Audience member: as well as keeps the trees.

Applause in the Webster Township Hall.

BL:  In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News. 

Chain-sawing, road sounds.

David Fair:  The Washtenaw County Road Commission has completed tree cutting along Mast, North Territorial, and Textile Roads and will continue to maintain 10-foot clear zones along sections of those roadways. But, it did decide to return grant money for a 2019 project to remove more trees along North Territorial.  Although it believe clear zones are crucial for safety, the commission will review its community engagement strategies.


“Lifted On Giant Inner Tubes, An Old Tree Moves In Michigan,” NPR, October 26, 2014. 

Federal Highway Administration High Risk Rural Road Program

“Road Commission returns $600K grant after complaints about tree removals,” Ryan Stanton, MLive, March 22, 2018. 

Washtenaw County Road Commission Facebook page statement

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.
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