City councillor Quinton Zondervan looks over a stump from one of at least 20 tree cuttings done Saturday at the Alewife Reservation. (Photo: Charles Teague)

Calls for a tree-cutting moratorium made last week to city councillors must have sounded different to developers – like a signal to cut down trees before they can be stopped, environmentalists say.

A 2-foot diameter oak tree was prepped Thursday for removal in East Cambridge to make way for a concrete patio, just a day after an Ordinance Committee hearing where councillors heard demands by many public speakers, including members of the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force, for a tree-cutting moratorium to be added to the Cambridge Tree Protection Ordinance. A moratorium could yet be added when changes to law come before the full council for a vote.

The reason for removal on Spring Street in favor of a patio, said neighbor Peter Crawley after a conversation with the property’s manager: “Owner says tree is too much trouble to clean up after and maintain.”

A healthy elm tree is prepped for removal on Spring Street in East Cambridge. (Photo: Peter Crawley)

On Saturday, things got worse: A developer cut down at least 20 large mature trees, including 11 on public parkland at the Alewife Reservation, watchdogs said. One was 4 feet in diameter.

Department of Public Works officials said all cutting happened on private property and was for valid reasons.

“Our engineer and our supervisor have both confirmed that the work is being done on private property. In Cambridge, [the tree-cutting contractor told us] it is limbing up in advance of winter conditions and removing invasive vines. One dead tree was also removed,” Owen O’Riordan, commissioner of Public Works, said in a Saturday email to city councillors Jan Devereux and Quinton Zondervan.

Maps obtained from the DPW “clearly show that land as public property,” said Charlie Teague, a green activist and North Cambridge resident whose work previously resulted in the formation of an Outdoor Lighting Ordinance Task Force.

“Councillor Zondervan’s permit process should have certainly prevented cutting down trees in the Reservation,” Teague said.

Trees were cut Saturday on public land indicated by the red arrow on this map from Friends of Alewife Reservation. Click to see a city Department of Public Works map showing the “unregistered” land.

Environmentalists also said they were reeling about the expected removal of about 200 mature trees to build rental apartments at 55 Wheeler St. in the Cambridge Highlands, on the site of the former Abt Associates. The development was on the Cambridge Conservation Commission’s Jan. 7 agenda (after being continued from November) because a portion of the property lies within a 100-year floodplain. Developer promises to remove asphalt pavement and landscape it with 36 trees and other vegetation are less than assuring to environmentalists worried about a bigger, ongoing loss.

“Seems like even the talk about an enforceable tree ordinance has made developers go hatchet wild,” said Ellen Mass, of the Friends of Alewife Reservation.

It was a predictable effect, mentioned at last week’s Ordinance Committee hearing by Devereux and Zondervan.

“The longer we have these conversations, the more we are planting ideas in property owners’ mind that ‘I better cut down that tree preemptively, because god knows what the council’s going to do,’” Devereux said, urging speed in passing tree protections. The ability to look back at what trees are cut down using satellite imagery is part of Zondervan’s proposal to “act as deterrent so people wouldn’t preemptively cut down the trees,” Zondervan said. 

But the change in law has not been enacted. 

Mass was also among the first sounding the alarm about the tree-cutting at the Reservation. “This morning a very young person called me, crying, about the extensive tree-cutting going on along Acorn Park Drive [in] Belmont and Cambridge. She said private contractors are cutting extensively along the roadway,” she said. “This reminds me of the 2014 destruction of the Silver Maple Forest right next door. Her tears speak louder than all the words.”

Tree-cutting Saturday was described as “limbing” by the contractor to the Department of Public Works. (Photo: Charles Teague)

The city has lost about 18 percent of its tree canopy in the past decade, and the task force has learned that the current rate of tree planting – up to 600 trees annually – and an optimistic tree mortality rate of no more than 5 percent suggests that in a little over a decade Cambridge will still have only about half the trees it has now, already low from the 18 percent loss. It’s a worrisome figure when coupled with the extreme heat waves and flooding bearing down on the city due to climate change.

O’Riordan opposed the “data collection” tree-cutting permit proposal made Wednesday by Zondervan, which would demand a permit for anyone planning to take down a “significant” tree – those 8 inches or more in diameter when measured 4 feet above the ground.

Zondervan said the “limbing” of the trees explained by O’Riordan was “very aggressive.”

Every branch that went over the roadway no matter how high or how large was cut off and put in a wood-chipper, Teague said, which “flies in the face of the tree task force strategy of planting more trees along streets and in parking lots” because the canopy can take advantage of the open space over paved areas to supply residents with cooling and other benefits from trees.

Another unpublicized conclusion of the tree task force is that healthy, mature trees should not be cut down in Cambridge solely because they are classified as “invasive” – a result of their tree survey that determined that “invasive” Norway Maples are 17 percent of the Cambridge tree canopy, Teague said.


This post was updated Jan. 16, 2019, with added information about developer plans at 55 Wheeler St.