A Tree Falls in Evanston

On Mon., June 2, by order of the City of Evanston, a massive white oak at 2728 Harrison St., older than any house on the street, and for that matter older than every single street or building in Evanston, here since before any European settler, was cut down. The ancient tree, standing approximately 100 feet tall, was so huge that it could not be felled in one day despite a full crew working on it all Monday. The white oak, the state tree of Illinois, is a slow-growing deciduous hardwood that, most sources say, can reach to three feet in diameter. I measured this specimen as 4' in diameter several feet above its base, and 13' in circumference.

Both by size, and by the number of rings I was able to count, it was at least 275 years old, possibly 300. I.e., it was already an old tree when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

White oak is an extremely hard wood prized for furniture, flooring, structural beams, and wine casks. Absent massive soil disruptions, they rarely fall. The owners did not cut this tree down voluntarily, but were ordered to — an expensive undertaking, costing thousands of dollars — by the City, under threat of repeated $750 fines, making any appeal difficult. Why is unclear. A City source said that the Forestry Department does not roam the neighborhoods looking for "dangerous trees" on private property, and that some neighbor must have complained. However neither neighbor on either side of the owners (including those who might have been in the tree's path had it toppled) had made any such complaint, and were upset about the loss of such a landmark.

This tree had been hit hard by lightning a long time ago, perhaps a century or more, and had survived, though with a fissure. A limb fell in another storm some years ago, requiring some repair work to the owners' roof. However, 50% or more of the trunk was solid and intact even at the injured spot, and the damage was so long ago that new bark was actually growing inside the hollow -- the appeared to be in the process of filling itself in. It withstood last summer's tornado-like winds without incident. A tree expert who stopped to watch the process said that the tree could have been crowned and made more symmetrical, and less susceptible to any instability. The standing trunk of this oak, below the fissure, was at least 20 feet of solid, intact wood, and more than 3' in diameter from that point to the ground. That's a lot of board feet, and old growth white oak should have a high value. Yet for some reason it was sawed down in small sections, making any lumber use impossible. I was told it will likely become firewood. Seems like an ignoble end for a tree that was here a century before John Evans stepped foot in the vicinity.

A tree this size, by some estimates, can account for up to 8% of the value of a home. This oak sequestered a ton or more of carbon every year by removing the greenhouse gas CO2 from the atmosphere, and prevented thousands of gallons of stormwater runoff. Shading houses in the summer and providing some windbreak in the winter, it saved the owners hundreds of dollars in cooling and heating costs annually. Aside from its value to humans, it provided shelter and food for animals; it's hard to calculate the numbers of the generations of squirrels, raccoons, robins and hawks that have perched on its branches.

This tree likely started out as a sapling in prairie dotted with wetlands and groves, and helped transform the land into forest. It remained and stood standing while this forested prairie was cleared and became farm. It then watched as the farm was subdivided into lots and houses were built, starting with Victorian farmhouses. It remained above the fray as horses and buggies stabled in the alley behind Harrison Street gave way to cars, and as most houses on the block added on. Children born and raised in north Evanston, who played under its shade, grew up, had children of their own, grew old, passed on, and this tree continued to tower above the neighborhood. Undoubtedly it saw thousands of lightning storms over its life, many violent, and more than one tornado. The rings revealed a decade of very slow growth, followed by some healthy catch-up. Yet all this it survived – storm, drought, winter freeze, summer heat, winds, insects, and man himself. Nothing could bring it down. Until yesterday.


Evanston "Tree City" We ave a wonderful urban forest here. "However we have no ordinance or guidelines to preserve existing trees when it comes to development. I would advocate that we need at minimum guidelines for contractors as to where the root systems of our trees are.

Almost every other North Shore community has some form of a tree ordinance to prevent trees from being killed.

For example one of our neighbors had one of his trees destroyed by the contractors who were building town homes next door to them.

If the city had even required that the root system radius be protected, the contractors would not have hacked the roots and killed this tree.

Unfortunately there have been many trees which were killed over the past few years.

I believe there is a statue in Illinois which allows for the owner of tree which has been killed to be reimbursed up to 3 times the value of the tree. This can be an extremely significant amount depending on the type, width and age of the tree.

Northbrook and Lake Forest have the most stringent tree ordinances I have seen. I would not want to see us go to that extreme where it can be up to $150 per inch of diameter depending on the tree.

Other communities require replacement of trees in order to take any down. What is so painful to see, are all the trees which are killed out of ignorance of how to preserve them while building.

I would encourage anyone who has had a tree killed to let CSNA and your alderman know. Also if you have been helpful in preserving trees please post that also.

Mary Rosinski

You are correct that most other nearby (and not-so-nearby) suburbs seem to have tree ordinances (see Highland Park's, or the Village of Riverwoods, for a couple different approaches), and it's odd that we have no protection for most trees on Evanston private property. Right now, if someone wants to go Mr. T on their yard, they apparently can, regardless of impact on neighbors or neighborhood, to say nothing of impact on the trees themselves. Most other towns at least require a permit and/or a tree preservation plan.

The importance of trees to the ecosystem is beyond question, but trees' importance to property values, as well as to psychological health, while also documented, is less well known.

Here are some links on tree ordinances:

A Minnesota task force guide to drafting tree ordinances

A good discussion on aspects of tree ordinances from the National Association of Home Builders

I invite CSNA members and other readers to supply other links and suggest what, if anything, they'd like to see Evanston implement to protect a resource that makes this town a great place to live.

Some years ago (late 90's), Alderman Rainey introduced a tree preservation ordinance that was tabled at the council level. This is very unfortunate, as we have lost so many trees since that time. The issue was hotly debated at the committee and council level. The objection if I recall, centered around enforcement. There are those property rights advocates who argued that one should not be told by the local government what is best for, or on their property.
What if they hate trees, or want to cut "their" tree down and build a "whatever"?

As many know, for years I have worked to preserve our prized, but much reduced elm tree population. The injection of fungicide has proved to more successful than originally anticipated. At least the loss of our elms due to disease, has been dramatically reduced.

There are many ways to require via ordinance, the replacement of trees that are harmed or removed due to construction. Some are more strict than others. The number of diameter inches is a common way in many other communities. For example, the tree shown is rather large and could be at least 30 diameter inches. The contractor could be required to offer a specified number of diameter inches in new tree plantings.

Paul D'Agostino, the City's forester, is present at many SPAARC meetings and routinely makes recommendations for landscaping on new development. Because we do no have a tree preservation ordinance, he can make recommendations, but the do not have to be followed. Just across the alley from me, a new garage was built. Sadly, it was not built in the same location. In what I considered to be a crime, a huge, pine tree that was home to many birds and squirrels, was thoughtlessly cut down to make way for an oversized garage that is taller than any other in our alley, and protrudes into the alley itself.

For me, I believe that the tree lined streets of Evanston are special and deserve special treatment. They represent our natural, capital infrastructure, which I have argued, deserves a place in our budget, which for now, after the latest budget battle, remains intact with regard to the elm injections.

All of our historic trees, whatever their species, or location, have value and add value to the quality of life in Evanston, and whenever possible should be preserved for future generations. Even by enforcement. I am all for a tree preservation ordinance!

Mimi Peterson

Thank for the history, Mimi.

Telling any property owner what they can or can't do with their property is something that always has to be approached with care and balance. A large tree, however, has an impact that extends beyond one's own yard. And, cumulatively, our trees constitute an "urban forest," albeit one maintained at private expense.

However, Evanston shows little hesitation is regulating much smaller subjects. It seems ironic that a municipality that tells residents what height their lawn has to be cut takes a laissez-faire approach to much more important natural resources.

In the decade since the ordinance proposal you reference, we've all become much more conscious of the importance of trees, from wildlife habitat to carbon sequestration. The world is losing forest daily. Evanston could take a stand against that trend.