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A CLEAR-CUT PROBLEM: An environmental writer laments the massacre of trees

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Land that was formerly a forest next to UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. Photo by David Gessner


What kind of place responds to two major hurricanes by cutting down their trees?

At a time when the rest of the world seems to have belatedly come to understand what a great friend and ally we have in trees—when books about tree consciousness are winning Pulitzer prizes and replanting is being seen as a way of fighting back against climate change—Wilmington has chosen the exact opposite approach. With two storms fresh in our minds, and new ones no doubt coming, we continue to go about business as usual. And that business is business.

When I moved here 16 years ago, I was immediately struck by the dominant role of developers in a town where it sometimes feels like government of the builders, by the builders, and for the builders. It has only gotten worse.

A quick ride through town illustrates the results of this philosophy: what can only be called a massacre of trees. Take a drive around Masonboro Sound, on land near Hewletts Creek, and witness the slaughter of hundreds of long leaf pines and water oaks, not a single one left standing, for a new road and development. Travel further south, just north of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science, and watch bulldozers unearth hundreds of acres of trees. Or head down Airlie Road, which has always seemed a vision of what this town could have been, with its low-gnarled branches and drooping Spanish Moss creating a canopy for cars. Now you can see clear through to Eastwood Road.

Then there’s UNCW. Since I hold a position of minor authority there, I am required to hold my tongue. But I will say the only thing stranger than cutting down trees after a hurricane is to indulge a mania for building parking lots.

“Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell,” wrote the writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey. The culture in Wilmington has always been one of rushing ahead—build, build, build, development at any cost. But cultures can change. As we grow, as we build, we can also preserve. We can make the place where we spend our lives a better, greener place. We can call out those who clear-cut. We can elect officials who understand that building is not everything. We can remember trees are our allies in the great fight ahead and not sacrifice them to greed.

We were lifted not long ago by the story of owners of a car wash deciding not to cut down their 100-year-old live oaks. Still, dozens of other stories that don’t end well for our local trees go untold. With each tree we cut down, we add to stormwater flooding, aid erosion, heat up an already overheated city, and offer less protection for our coastline. How can we justify reducing a tree canopy already battered as it was by Florence?

Around here, we mostly shrug and accept that beauty must fall to commerce, treating it as if it is the way of the world. It is not. It is the way of Wilmington. There are plenty of other towns and cities enforcing tighter restrictions. They prioritize preservation, and developers have to work with and around the natural environment, not blindly pave over it while those in power wink.

“There is nothing more practical than the preservation of beauty,” Theodore Roosevelt said. That this may not seem so in the short-term doesn’t make it any less true.

Our capitulation toward a build-at-all-costs mentality would be dire enough during normal times, but this time is far from normal. In Wilmington, with the memory of Hurricane Florence lingering and the threat of more storms right around the calendar’s corner, we have not just seen the future but lived inside it. The fact we no longer have winter should speak for itself. Even the most skeptical among us are beginning to understand that time is short in our fight for the earth.

During these times trees should be regarded as the potential saviors they are, pulling carbon dioxide from the air and gifting us oxygen in return. As a teacher at UNCW, and the father of a daughter in high school, I see how the younger generation views climate change—not as an abstract or theoretical concept. The older among us can scoff or make senseless jokes about not worrying about the warming climate because we “won’t be alive to see it.” But our kids will be alive, and the threat is very real to them: They are afraid, anxious, worried they will have no future.

We live in the land of the live oak, the long leaf pine, the Southern magnolia. It is a land where limbs gnarl, moss drips and branches sway with the wind during storms. Our trees are good neighbors: They protect us, shade us, delight us, nurture us. It would be nice to say we return the favor.

David Gessner is the author of eleven books, including the forthcoming “Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness.” He is currently the chair of UNCW’s Creative Writing Department.


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  1. Jenn

    February 27, 2020 at 4:14 am

    I don’t disagree with anything said in this article. I would only add to it the fact that 80% of the world’s deforestation is due to agriculture. And by agriculture, I mean a combination of factory farming of animals for human consumption and the land needed to grow the food to feed these animals. Yes, voting more environmentally conscious representatives into office will help change laws, regulations, etc, but on a personal level, each person eating less meat/animal products and more of a plant-based diet would make a much larger and faster impact towards saving our planet. I think people often forget that WE drive the market. The market will respond to our wants and needs. If we express concern over our health and our planet’s health by demanding better options for us, animals, and our planet, the market will adapt to these demands. As sad as I am to hear about trees being uprooted to make room for parking lots, I’m more disturbed by the apathy most of us have when it comes to making small sacrifices to better our world.

  2. Colette Tan

    February 27, 2020 at 7:24 am

    Developers are replanting….After they clear cut and install a subdivision, each lot is decorated with 4 bushes and a token tree…..

  3. Lara

    February 27, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    Trees are the charismatic megaflora. So much irreplaceable local ecology is also lost to the almighty real estate dollar. Plants and soils are communities too. Thank you for this sad but beautifully written essay.

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