AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Dozens of children gathered under the shade of an historic live oak tree on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol Wednesday to listen to lawmakers read Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” a tale that depicts the terrible consequences of destroying trees. Their purpose: to thwart Gov. Greg Abbott’s crusade against tree protections.
In the story, read by state Reps. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, a greedy “Once-ler” chops down the trees in a colorful utopian forest, against the pleas of the Lorax who “speaks for the trees.” When all the trees are gone, the air and water becomes polluted and all the animals who lived in the forest must move away, leaving the “Once-ler” alone and regretful in a barren land.
After the reading Wednesday, several of the children and other attendees delivered copies of Seuss’ book to the offices of 60 state representatives and senators.
The event was organized by Defend Texas Trees and the Texas Campaign for the Environment, environmental advocacy groups opposed to proposed legislation that would prevent cities from regulating what property owners can do with trees on their private lands.
More than 50 Texas communities have ordinances that keep property owners from cutting down certain protected trees, and which sometimes require owners to pay a fine for removing a tree.
Senate Bill 14, which would make it illegal for cities to have such ordinances, is a top priority of Gov. Abbott, who made it one of 20 agenda items he’s asking legislators to pass during a 30-day special session this summer.
Abbott’s crusade against trees
Abbott has called tree ordinances “socialistic,” and believes that telling people what they can and cannot do with the trees in their own backyard is an assault on private property rights.
Abbott also has some personal reasons which may explain why he wants to make it easier for people to cut down trees.
In 1984, Abbott was jogging in Houston when a giant post oak tree snapped and fell on him, crushing his spine and leaving him paralyzed. A year before the accident, a company had inspected the tree, located on private property, and found that there was some rotting at the base of the tree which could not be corrected.
Abbott sued the property owner and the inspection company and received a multimillion-dollar settlement.
The governor has also had a dispute with the city of Austin over its tree ordinance. In a radio interview in June, Abbott said that before becoming governor he wanted to cut down a protected pecan tree in the yard of his Austin-area home.
Austin’s tree ordinance protects 5 percent of the city’s 34 million trees, according to city arborist Michael Embesi.
“Austin told me no,” Abbott said. “I could not cut it down, and I had to pay money to the city of Austin to add more trees to my yard, because I wanted to cut down one very common tree that was in a bad location.”
The value of tree ordinances
The Republican-controlled Legislature is usually in lock-step with the governor, but many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – and their constituents – are pushing back on this issue, concerned that the anti-tree ordinance bill could cause substantial environmental and economic damage across the state.
Thais Perkins, executive director of TreeFolks, a group that helps Texas communities build and restore urban forests, said that the impact of SB 14 would be “devastating” because trees are essential for stormwater cleaning, help prevent flooding, and clean the air.
Just the largest trees in Austin provide water purification equal to seven water treatment plants, Perkins said.
Austin’s trees have a compensatory value of an estimated $16 billion, according to a February 2016 report from the U.S. Forest Service.
The report found that Austin’s trees, which cover more than 30 percent of the city, store approximately 1.9 million tons of carbon – a $242 million value.
“Anybody who removes a mature tree is creating an impact that would last for generations,” Perkins said. “If we had to replace the services that trees provided, it would be incredibly expensive and the tax burden would be enormous.”
In a July 22 Senate committee hearing on business and commerce, more than 40 people spoke against SB 14 and offered several additional reasons why tree ordinances are important.
One fire department official said the bill would increase the risk of wildfire destruction since trees provide shade and humidity to grass, preventing the ignition and spread of fires.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, director of San Antonio’s Office of Military Affairs, said SB 14 would hinder the missions of the city’s seven military installations, because trees surrounding the installations buffer noise and light, and keep birds away.
Two military installations in the San Antonio area, Camp Bullis and Camp Stanley, are rapidly becoming the only refuge for an endangered bird called the golden-cheeked warbler, as the areas around the camps have developed. As the birds have moved into the camps, they’ve made vast areas unusable for military training.
Several city planning managers, city arborists, and residents also spoke against the bill, while only two people testified in favor of the measure.
State Sen. and committee member Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said many people have chosen to move into a master-planned development in his district called The Woodlands because of the restrictions in place there that protect trees.
The Woodlands is one of the most conservative areas of Texas, and its residents gave Abbott one of his largest margins of victory in the state. But when developers cleared trees for shopping centers in the newest part of the town a few years ago, residents protested and made the builders promise not to do it again.
“Of course we all are for private property rights,” Creighton said. “But those restrictions are what make The Woodlands, The Woodlands.”
An editorial published July 21 in Creighton’s district’s newspaper, The Courier of Montgomery County, urged Creighton and other lawmakers to “educate the governor on how important tree preservation is to Montgomery County’s conservative voters, who love their pines and other vegetation as well as their property rights and guns.”
When the full state Senate voted on the bill a few days later, however, Creighton cast a “yea” vote.
Abbott is keeping a “naughty-or-nice” list during the special session to track which lawmakers support his 20-item agenda, and commended Creighton for his support of SB 14.
The state Senate passed SB 14 in a 17-14 vote on July 26, with three Republicans voting with their Democratic colleagues against the bill.
During the debate on the bill, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, asked the bill’s author, state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, if he didn’t like trees.
“I love trees,” Hall said. “I also love liberty.”
The exchange was reminiscent of a passage in The Lorax:
“All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!’” the Once-ler tells the Lorax. “Well, I have my rights sir, and I’m telling you I intend to go on doing just what I do.”
Dueling tree bills
The fate of SB 14 is now in the hands of the state House, where it must pass through another committee before it’s taken up on the floor.
The majority of House members support a compromise bill, HB 7, which would limit the extent of mitigation required for tree removals but allow local ordinances to remain in places. The bill, authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, would require municipalities that impose fees for tree removal to allow people to plant trees and receive a credit to offset the fee.
“Though the fees and restrictions vary from city to city, one thing is for certain: tree ordinances significantly increase housing prices and building costs,” Phelan said.
Abbott vetoed a bill nearly identical to HB 7 that made it through both chambers during the regular legislative session this year.
In a statement after his veto in June, Abbott said the bill, SB 744, was “well-intentioned” but didn’t go far enough to protect property rights.
“SB 744 appears to be a compromise bill that imposes a very minor restriction on some municipal tree ordinances,” Abbott said. “But in doing so, it gives the imprimatur of state law to the municipal micromanagement of private property, which should be abolished altogether.”
In a committee hearing on urban affairs last month, Phelan said HB 7 had been carefully negotiated during the regular session and was a compromise between the municipal leagues of various cities, developers, private property owners and the Texas Nature Conservancy.
Phelan said members of the Urban Affairs committee voted favorably on the language of HB 7 six times during the regular legislative session, and that SB 744 had received 500 yes votes and only one no vote through the entire process.
“Builders have been trying to get a bill like this passed for 10-plus years,” Phelan said. “It’s the first tree bill that’s made it this far and, of course, we vetoed it.”
There was no testimony against HB 7 during the committee hearing, and on July 27, the Texas House passed the bill in a 130-9 vote.
After their Lorax story time, representatives Alvarado and Faircloth said in a joint interview that SB 14 was overreaching and wouldn’t have much support in the Texas House.
“We just feel like the people that live and work and invest their time and raise their families there, they know best how to order their own lives,” Faircloth said.
HB 7 is scheduled for a public hearing on Friday in the state Senate Business and Commerce committee. SB 14 has not yet been assigned to a House committee.