Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Northern Tree Service cutting trees on May 4. (Photo: Charles Teague)

The MBTA had Northern Tree Service cut down at least 70 public trees May 4 in an Alewife flood zone. Northern mobilized a massive fleet of workers and machines to cut down the trees on a weekend when agencies are closed because, with nearly a century of experience, it knew permits are needed in wetland buffer zones. Unlike other Cambridge property owners, the MBTA does not need city permits to cut down trees. One would have hoped that since Northern works also for the city, it would have told the MBTA about the collapse of our tree canopy and advocated for restraint.

This was an urban wild across the street from the Alewife MBTA garage. There are parking structures on each side and it backs onto a canal for overflows of raw sewage into Alewife Brook. It’s a depression that floods with raw sewage during large rainstorms, preventing the sewage from flowing onto streets, sidewalks and paths and into the abutting Healthpeak Properties parking garage basement. The raw sewage then either flows out the canal or is absorbed into the ground, naturally sanitized by the trees and other plants.

Now chips from the cut-down trees decrease sewage retention and increase the chance of raw sewage flowing into the Healthpeak garage. Trees no longer screen the view of raw sewage. Not only did all the equipment burn fossil fuels to get here, and to cut and chip entire trees, but also all the stored carbon in the trees is now going back into our atmosphere.

The trees cleansed and cooled the air for this industrial neighborhood and all the people using Alewife Station, many of whom have no choice but to take public transportation. It will take decades to begin to replace these public health benefits. The city wrote “The MBTA did clear the area to create clear sightlines.” Unfortunately, there is an alternate narrative.

A general contractor building out a restaurant around the corner said that last year there was a homeless camp by the sewage canal. When pressed, he claimed there were complaints. The abutting, heavily fortified, Healthpeak garage likely serves out-of-towners commuting in cars to six-figure tech jobs. Possibly they were offended by glimpses of blue tarps when peering through the row of parked cars, through the heavily grated openings and through the formerly dense screen of trees and leaves.

To be sure, a homeless camp is not pleasant. But last year’s camp would have been hidden away in this industrial area contaminated with raw sewage. If there were incidents, the police could have been called. The owners of the giant complexes, the corporate tenants and the better-paid employees all could have funded aid programs. They could have built a wall and hired armed guards. Or done nothing, since there was no camp this year.

Instead, the MBTA spent a likely tens of thousands of our tax dollars to commit environmental villainy, perhaps just to push the homeless people out of yet another refuge.

But alleged narratives do not matter. What does matter is that trees are still coming down everywhere in Cambridge. Nearly a fifth of the canopy disappeared in a decade and the city is still not taking its own tree canopy preservation plan seriously. You need to remind city management that it’s not only the unhoused who benefit by the cooling from large, mature trees: it’s the very young, the very old, the infirm and those who can’t afford an air-conditioned car to ride around in.

Email your city councillors that we are losing too many trees and city management has to stop cutting down trees for unnecessary projects.

Finally, the MBTA needs to commit to Cambridge’s Urban Forest Master Plan, which says “our first priority must be to remove fewer trees unnecessarily and to extend the lives of our trees through improved management practices.”


Charles Teague lives in North Cambridge and is a longtime tree advocate.