They Came, They Sawed, They Conquered

The carnage began at NE 99th Street. They came with chain saws and wood chippers. Blocking off one lane of traffic along Biscayne Boulevard, the three men hacked and sawed for nearly three weeks, working their way south through Miami Shores. When they were done, the long row of majestic, nearly 40-year-old ficus trees had been stripped utterly naked. Where there had once been a seven-block canopy of lush greenery, now only trunks remained, with stubs instead of branches.

This is what is known as hat-racking, so named because the end result leaves trees looking like knobby poles (albeit obscenely fat ones) upon which to hang headgear. "When I saw it, I almost fainted," recalls Judy Bun, who recently moved to the Shores from New Hampshire, only to see the magnificent shade tree a few yards from her front door reduced to a stick figure by the Miami Shores Department of Public Works. "It looks like they butchered it. If I was arriving now, I'd say 'Yuck!'"

In a time of growing awareness of the value of trees on the urban landscape, people like Nancy Masterson see the Miami Shores mauling as a brutal reminder that many municipal officials still don't get it. "This is passe, archaic, illegal, bad for the tree, bad for the homeowner, and probably bad for the municipality," says Masterson, coordinator of the southeast region for American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes the care and planting of trees in urban areas. Masterson's group is running a campaign called Global ReLeaf 2000, which aims to plant 20 million trees by the millennium in the hopes of raising the level of forest cover in U.S. cities to 40 percent from its current average of 25 or 30 percent.

Clearly, Masterson and her colleagues have their work cut out for them around these parts.

In urban areas of unincorporated Dade, only ten percent of the developed landscape is covered with trees, according to a study undertaken by American Forests. In spite of their sparseness, those trees save single-family homeowners an estimated $5.3 million per year in air-conditioning costs, reduce stormwater runoff by up to fifteen percent, add as much as fifteen percent to property values, and remove large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combating global warming. "If the trees are worth that much, they deserve some care," the activist argues.

Standing beside one of the denuded Miami Shores trees as cars whisk by on busy Biscayne, Masterson points out how an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture would have selectively cut in order not to do damage to the tree. "Next time, instead of lopping them all off at once and maintaining a square canopy, they should take branches off around the central leader," she says, explaining that proper pruning encourages the formation of a single trunk and ensures a solid foundation on which to grow. "What they are creating is a sail," she scolds. "In four months you will have a thick canopy that a strong wind can just topple backward."

Masterson believes that if Miami Shores were to have its trees trimmed properly, it would save money in the long run. "You do it right and you don't have to go back so often," she explains.

Indeed, certified arborists are unanimous in their repudiation of hat-racking. "Large-growing trees become the most dangerous after being topped," warns C. Way Hoyt, who trains arborists at Miami-Dade Community College. "If you cut all the branches off, the stubs will have a cone-shape area of decay. They will be poorly attached to the tree, and when there is a storm, you have the potential for large limbs to break off." South Florida residents saw this frightening scenario come to life, he notes, when Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc with the area's trees in 1992.

After a review that lasted more than a decade, Dade County commissioners passed a landscaping ordinance in 1995 forbidding hat-racking and setting a trimming limit of one-third of a tree's canopy unless it is damaged, dead, or beneath utility lines or structures. "This is definitely more than one-third," Masterson says, stating the obvious as she ruefully eyes what's left of the trees that line the boulevard. Most are not within range of power lines.

The ordinance authorizes up to a $200 fine for noncompliance but does not provide for enforcement. Several municipalities, including Miami Shores, have their own ordinances, ostensibly at least as stringent as the county's. "We apply what the county requires," insists Frank LuBien, director of the city's building and zoning department.

Though LuBien and his fellow Miami Shores officials seem at a loss to explain how their pruning practices could be seen as being in line with the county ordinance, they claim they had no choice: The branches were hanging over the roadway and threatening larger vehicles such as trucks and buses. "They got so out of hand, we had to cut them back," says public works director Tom Benton. "When they get that heavy, the limbs begin to sag and they break off."

Paul Simas, a certified arborist who lives in the Shores, is sympathetic to what he sees as a bad situation for the city. The fault, he argues, lies equally with whoever planted the trees in the first place. "It's the nature of the ficus," says Simas. "If they were oak trees, they could have done something."

There are 800 varieties of ficus. The residential stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that runs through Miami Shores is lined mainly with Ficus benjamina, also known as the weeping banyan. It is a tree with an exotic pedigree -- having originally ranged through India, the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, and the Sunda Islands -- and a dubious modus operandi: If left alone, it will overpower the plant life around it. "They are really monsters," declares Alan Fehrman, commercial urban horticulture agent for the Dade County/University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service. "The ficus can be very hard to manage in an urban situation."

The tree, Fehrman explains, grows by dropping aerial roots to the ground. While those roots become auxiliary trunks to support the branches, underground roots stretch out looking for water. The ficus will seek out cracks in swimming pools or leaking faucets, and along the way it has been known to buckle sidewalks and crack water mains. "It can cover acres," says Fehrman. "It just sort of marches across the landscape."

Ficus trees became popular in South Florida during the Fifties and Sixties, quickly finding favor with developers and nurseries because of their rapid growth rate -- as much as six to ten feet per year. "They give an instant effect and they are inexpensive," says Hoyt. "But those who are educated on the issues have known for a long, long time that ficuses are not appropriate trees to plant along the roadsides."

Sally Stribling, president and owner of Miami-Agra Starts, the largest plant nursery specializing in ficuses in South Florida, begs to differ. "They are terrific plants," Stribling insists. "It's just that people who are working with them need a little more knowledge."

And they need a lot of money, as Coral Gables officials have discovered. The city maintains 1398 ficuses along its roadways and in its parks. Planted during the Fifties, they compose about four percent of the municipality's total public tree cover -- but they command a sizable slice of the $363,468 the city annually pays an independent contractor for tree maintenance. "Ficus trees are big and cause problems," says Dan Keys, director of public service. When ficus trees die in Coral Gables, the city replants with slower-growing trees that are easier to maintain, such as live oak.

Unlike Miami Shores, Coral Gables employs a full-time certified arborist. And despite the particular challenges presented by the ficus, Gables tree trimmers are expressly forbidden to hat-rack. Says Keys: "Nobody doing trees today should be doing that.


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