Treeless in Miami

For decades three massive trees flanked the parking lot of a central Miami photography lab, inviting customers and strangers to linger in the shade of their lofty canopies. The leafy hardwoods provided respite from a desert of concrete buildings, chainlink fences, and paved lots in the anonymous industrial strip that parallels NE Second Avenue from NE Sixth Street north to Little Haiti.

Burrowing insects carved tiny caverns in the trees' trunks and crowns. Woodpeckers stripped the bark and drilled holes. Squirrels leapfrogged the branches.

No longer.
Two weeks ago CLM Imaging Inc., located at 111 NE 21st St., ordered the tall timbers felled. Only dry stumps remain.

Customers who had grown fond of parking in the ancient trees' shade became distraught when they found only an asphalt lot. "I'm upset about anybody who would cut down a huge old tree that has been around a long time," said 52-year-old Sandra Wilson, whose husband processes film at the lab. "They don't have enough respect for the environment when someone does that."

Videographer and photographer Ron Williams also regrets the loss. "You just don't go around cutting down huge trees that have been here forever," he insists. "I don't like it. To me, it's not the end of the world, but I don't understand why they couldn't have just trimmed them back."

The City of Miami prohibits residents to cut trees without a permit, even those on their own property. Miami Code Enforcement Officer Orlando Llamas, who works for the Wynwood/Edgewater Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET), cited the lab owners last week for destroying the trees without obtaining a permit. He believes that at least one was a live oak, based on the size of its trunk -- more than two feet in diameter -- and the shape of the leaves found near the remaining stump.

Because of the shade provided by their verdant canopies, oaks are considered so precious that city officials rarely permit their removal. The fine for axing any tree without a permit is $500. The guilty party also has to plant enough seedlings to eventually grow a covering equal to that of the cut tree. Property owners who remove a "specimen tree" -- one with a trunk eighteen inches or more in diameter -- must provide saplings that will double the original canopy.

The lab's owners can contest the citations in a hearing before the Ticket Appellate Board. Maggie Rose, CLM's general manager, declines to explain why the trees were cut but says the company will do whatever it must to resolve the matter and satisfy the city inspectors. "We don't think that we've done anything wrong," Rose asserts. "All of a sudden this has grown to unbelievable proportions. There's a lot of confusion here."

CLM is not the only business in the neighborhood that has been cited for sawing through a large tree. In July Llamas nailed two residents for clearing an oak from their lot on NW Third Avenue and 24th Street. But the inspector would rather protect the trees than punish the owners after the fact. "I want to restrict people before the point of cutting," he says. Last June the inspector got a call from a conscientious neighbor worried that a developer working on an overgrown lot on NE Fourth Street and 34th Avenue would flatten an ancient oak. "I went down and posted the tree with a notice of restriction so they couldn't touch it," Llamas proclaims proudly. Yet Llamas thinks he should get more complaints from Wynwood, considering the number of trees felled there.

So much of the natural vegetation in central Miami has been cut, chopped, mulched, ground, or burned to clear the way for development that few residents notice the killing of another old oak. These and other trees are needed to clean the air, muffle traffic noise, and cool the city, according to plant biologists and forestry experts from South Florida's universities.

Woodlands create shade that reduces the ambient temperature of the entire urban area and diminishes the need for energy-using air conditioners, says Ron Hofstetter, an associate professor of biology at the University of Miami. Large hardwood trees absorb more carbon monoxide than other types of foliage, and their thick fibrous innards block that gas from escaping. Hardwoods also release more oxygen into the atmosphere. "Those functions improve the quality of our air," Hofstetter says. "There are other functions that relate to the shape, size, and arrangement of branches and leaves -- deciduous trees are more effective in removing dust and pollution and are more effective in reducing noise levels."

But much of South Florida's natural forest -- composed of pine, willow, oak and other hardwoods -- has been destroyed. A 1976 arboreal study showed that nearly all the native woodland had already been lost to development. The remaining trees' canopies cover just sixteen percent of South Florida's urban area, but naturalists recommend at least 40 percent to provide adequate shade and other benefits, according to Juan Bueno, a landscape architect and associate professor at Florida International University. "A hundred years ago most of the area where we live was rockland pine forest," Bueno relates. "We have cut all this down. We have destroyed what could have been our urban forest."

Hurricane Andrew savaged or scattered many of those few remaining trees, especially in South Dade, Hofstetter says. Because palms proved the hardiest during the storm, many homeowners replaced hardwoods with their fronded cousins, which don't provide nearly the same shade or carbon monoxide absorption.

To make matters worse, after the hurricane a bark-beetle epidemic gnawed away at the few surviving stands of Dade County pine, a variety unique to South Florida, says Scott Zona, research scientist at Fairchild Tropical Garden. "Right here along the coast we lost tremendous numbers, thousands," Zona mourns. "There are other pines that are surviving farther west, at the entrance of Everglades National Park. But the canopy certainly isn't what it used to be."

South Florida is not yet a wasteland -- some cities have successfully averted desertification by planting trees and encouraging homeowners to do the same. Bueno points to Miami Beach as a model: That city's tree cover ranked among the thinnest in all of South Florida in 1976, at only six percent of its area. "Now city employees are planting trees along the streets," Bueno says. The city has also taken care to seed only medium-size, small-rooted varieties, so that branches don't get caught in high wires and large roots don't block sewer pipes.

Coconut Grove residents also get kudos from Miami officials for policing their leafy environment. "I probably get eight to ten calls a week from people reporting that someone's trimming a tree," says Coconut Grove NET administrator Ellie Haydock. The City of Miami prohibits trimming more than 30 percent of a tree's crown.

An educational organization created by Grove dwellers called the Treeman Trust provides instruction to residents and city employees on the proper way to trim a tree without harming it. Members of the organization also police tree maulers by taking snapshots of the damage and showing them to city officials to prevent further degradation of the neighborhood's lush subtropical landscape.

No such arboreal army exists in Miami's central business district, Llamas explains regretfully; most of the residents don't own the apartments and homes wedged among the warehouses, factories, and parking lots. But as an example of responsible tree removal, Llamas points to a once-dense lot on NW Second Avenue between 20th and 21st streets cleared by Braman Motors to make way for a new auto service center. So far the car dealership has followed the law by obtaining the proper permit and replanting native palms; the company will also plant hardwoods to replace those that have come down. "It's going to come out real nice," Llamas says.


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