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Detroiters Against Free Trees?

  • Jonathan Wood
  • In 2014, a nonprofit tried to give thousands of trees to Detroit residents, but many declined the offer. A recent study attempts to explain why so many people would turn down “free” trees. As the New York Times explains, it wasn’t because they dislike trees.

    Deborah Westbrook, a lifelong resident of Detroit, would love a tree in front of her home. “With a green tree in front of my house,” she said, “and me looking at the green leaves, knowing that the tree and sun were mixing together to give off the oxygen we breathe? I would be proud. A tree in front of my house would not only help with the air, but it would help with me.” Nonetheless, when representatives from a local nonprofit came to plant trees on her block five years ago, Ms. Westbrook said no. So did more than 1,800 Detroiters — a quarter of all eligible residents — between 2011 and 2014.

    Instead, the concern was over what happens after the trees are planted. Detroiters appreciated that the trees would have to be maintained, cared for if they became diseased, and their impacts on sidewalks, underground pipes, and neighboring homes mitigated. Based on past failed programs, many did not trust that the group providing the trees would have the same enthusiasm and funds for this more mundane maintenance work.

    Ms. Westbrook noted that the city hasn’t addressed several dead trees on her block. She was worried that a dead giant next door would damage her roof, leaving her to pay for repairs. Now retired, Ms. Westbrook worked for Detroit’s water department, where she saw enough tree roots growing into pipes that she didn’t want to plant a tree of her own until she replaced her old pipes with root-resistant PVC ones.

    This example highlights one of the persistent challenges in conservation: people are far more enthusiastic about the initial acquisition of an environmental asset than they are the long-term care of it. Many conservation groups acquire conservation lands and conservation agreements, only to transfer those rights to the government for long-term management. However, this isn’t just a challenge for nonprofits dependent on donations; governments also struggle with funding mundane conservation work.

    For instance, it is politically more popular to use limited federal funds to acquire land, than to maintain existing federal lands. Consequently, the National Park Service has a $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects—several times the agency’s annual budget. Yet closing this backlog has proven extremely difficult politically, even as the government spends lots of money acquiring additional properties.

    Property rights and free market environmentalism can avoid these problems by tying short- and long-term environmental benefits to their short- and long-term costs. Returning to Detroit’s trees, if the nonprofit offering free trees retained the property rights to them—and therefore the liability to maintain them—residents could have more confidence that these costs are accounted for (barring the group’s bankruptcy). A free-market approach might also involve the group paying property owners to accept the liability accompanying free trees, which would also incentivize choices that reduce these costs.

    Written By
    • Jonathan Wood
      • Vice President of Law & Policy

      Jonathan Wood is vice president of law and policy at PERC, leading PERC’s Conservation Law and Policy Center.

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