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The Shade Tree Act of 1906

This work of legislation was enacted to protect shade trees in Pennsylvania.

Trees Need Protection Too

It’s easy to take the trees around us for granted. They seem ever-present, largely unchanging except with the seasons. We enjoy our trees until they become a burden, a hindrance to our personal goals. Trees are not usually viewed as a community asset, no matter where they are planted. Rather, we take an individualistic approach and see the trees on our land as our rightful possession. The trees around us are at our disposal.

But consider if everyone in our neighborhood shared this mentality. Imagine that anyone and everyone could decide the fate of trees in the community. The urban canopy would be jeopardized. Without the protection and regulation of community trees, many trees might be cut down without good reason. Individuals lacking proper knowledge of tree care could harm a tree.

Unfortunately, the environment has been drastically remolded to suit our desires and needs. Yet if we continue to take our natural resources for granted, to remove trees as soon as we don't want them, then we will lose precious local resources at an unsustainable rate. That’s why we need protection for community trees. They provide valuable ecosystem services and deserve proper care. Thanks to century-old legislation and forethought, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania created the Shade Tree Act of 1906 to oversee the management of public resources, the shade trees.

Many well-intentioned property owners could hurt shade trees if left to prune the trees themselves. Leaving the responsibility to the Shade Tree Commission to hire professionals may be best for the health of the trees and the urban forest.


What Does The Shade Tree Act Entail?

Under the Shade Tree Act of 1906, all shade trees in a borough, township, or city are protected. Shade trees are considered a public resource. These are trees located in the public right-of-way and along streets, sidewalks, and highways. Trees in public parks, open spaces, or trails are also considered shade trees. The specific definition of a shade tree may vary among municipalities, but as the name suggests, these trees can be planted to provide strategic shade and cooling.

This act designates a quasi-governmental shade tree commission for a municipality. It is the only entity responsible for the protection, care, removal, and planting of shade trees in the area it resides over. The commission is responsible for informing the public and government of policy issues regarding the urban forest. This commission can delegate powers to a park commission to manage shade trees in a public park. The shade tree commission consists of elected volunteers whose members serve three to five years. At the start of each term, new members are elected by the chief burgess, the mayor, and previous shade tree commission members.

The commission budgets and funds the maintenance of the trees within its jurisdiction. While the shade tree commission is endowed with the care of the trees, it is not responsible for the physical tree care. The commission can hire specialists, like arborists or engineers, to care for, install, or remove a tree. When the shade tree commission decides to add or remove a shade tree, it must also notify the public about these changes in a newspaper weeks before the alterations are performed.

Everhart Park in West Chester is a lovely retreat amid a bustling town. Shade tree protections are essential for maintaining the park and keeping trees healthy. Managing public shade trees in parks like Everhart ensures the integrity of the urban forest.

Ultimately, the intended purpose of the Shade Tree Commission is to provide recommendations to the local government on how to best manage the urban forest. Cities like Pittsburg and Phoenixville and boroughs like West Chester and Conshohocken have all adopted shade tree protections managed by a shade tree commission. Caring for the shade trees is an investment in the community and the environment. By protecting, restoring, and managing the urban forest, local trees (and their ecosystem services) can be enjoyed by all for decades to come.


Idyllic In Theory, Not Always In Action

Despite the intended benefits of the act, the legislation is not entirely favorable. Consider Section 4 of the Shade Tree Act of 1906. It states that property owners are financially responsible for alterations to publicly owned trees in front of their property. For example, if a street tree outside of your house causes a cracked sidewalk, you must bear the cost of the repairs. Homeowners are responsible for shade tree planting and removal. The upkeep of the shade trees is afforded through taxes from the city, borough, or township. Failure to pay, and any violations of this act, result in additional fines. These fines return to the commission as credit from the district treasurer.

It seems unfair that private residents should pay for alterations to public property, especially when they are already taxed for tree care by the local municipality. This legislation can be difficult for financially vulnerable community members. Instead of relieving residents of having to personally manage public trees, the act essentially does the opposite. Shade tree care can become a stressful burden on individuals. With laws like these, the community may come to disfavor the urban canopy rather than appreciate it.

Another problem with the Shade Tree Act is that it protects trees on public-owned property; these trees are only a portion of the urban forest in a town or city. A large percentage of trees reside on residential or private land. There are currently no laws that protect privately owned trees, besides some heritage laws written in the ordinances of some cities.

Not every municipality may have the necessary resources needed to organize a shade tree commission. Some municipalities might not even want one. Perhaps there is not enough in the budget to consult certified arborists and other professionals in the tree care industry. Committee members may not possess knowledge of how to properly manage the urban canopy. It would be false to assume that all shade tree commissions are perfectly equipped to make careful, considerate, and science-guided choices in the management of the urban canopy.

Shade tree commissions are not always free of corruption. In some cases, those serving on the board care little about the tree as much as bolstering their public appeal and resume. In other cases, tax-based funding intended for the trees is put toward unrelated community events. Essentially, the Shade Tree Act of 1906 and the Shade Tree Commission cannot guarantee the proper management of resources and the protection of the urban forest.

It should be known that not all shade tree commissions are poorly run or poor-intentioned. In fact, many committees do care about the well-being of the trees and community. Many are serious about the expansion and care of the urban forest. With the right organization and investment of resources, shade tree committees can make positive improvements to the urban canopy. Many already have.

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