Tree Loss in Atlanta

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Tree Removal Trends

This analysis includes trees on private property only, which are managed by the Arborist Division. Does not include trees on public property, which are managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

(Click on the picture below for an expanded view.)

number of permitted trees - by type

More Trees Than Ever Before Are Being Removed as DDH
(Dead, Dying or Hazardous)  

Approximately half of all trees removed each year are designated as DDH, which means the property owner does not have to replace or pay recompense for them. Last quarter, the percentage of trees removed as DDH was 57%, the highest it's ever been. The average DBH (diameter at breast height) of a DDH-removed tree is 21.8 inches, a size that has remained fairly consistent since FY 2014.

DDH-removed trees are often associated with building permits, in which developers are able to avoid replacement or recompense fees for any trees labeled DDH on their site plans. The City has yet to provide DDH tree removal data by area of town, although we can see in Accela that the largest percentage of DDH applications are filed in zip codes where construction is considerably higher (i.e., zip codes 30305, 30327 accounted for 25% of DDH applications filed this past quarter, with zip codes 30318, 30306, and 30342 accounting for the next 25% of DDH applications.) While we are told by the City Arborist that the number of DDH trees and the reasons they were approved as DDH are in Accela, the City's online permitting database, for each DDH permit, this information is "turned off" for public view.  All we can see is the DDH information that a permit applicant may, on occasion, provide as part of their tree removal application, but this, of course, is the permit applicant's own assessment of the trees the applicant wants removed as DDH.

Additionally, the City does not track which trees DDH-removed trees were actually "saved" trees from a previous construction project, but ended up dying within a few years due to lack of tree protection during the construction phase (i.e., improperly located or maintained tree fencing).  Nor does it track DDH trees that were "replaced" trees from prior construction projects, but failed to thrive long-term.  And finally, the City does not track DDH trees that are removed shortly before a developer files a building permit.

Illegally Cut Trees More Than Doubled Last Year

As with all law enforcement issues, it is never clear whether a spike in violations of the law means that crime is up or if law enforcement officers are doing a better job at catching the crooks. What we do know is that illegal tree removal has been slowly increasing over the past few years, and dramatically increased in FY 2019.  And the size of the average tree cut illegally jumped up to 20.2 inches this past quarter from an average of 17.3 inches over the previous six years. Therefore, it's clear that enforcement penalties in the tree ordinance need to be strengthened.  We are losing more trees and bigger trees due to weak penalties in the tree ordinance.

Legally Cut Trees Are Increasing, Too!

Not surprisingly, more trees than ever are being removed legally, 95% of them are associated with plan reviews for building permits.  Last fiscal year, 7,755 trees healthy trees were legally removed, averaging 15.8 inches in DBH.  We expect 8,400 more healthy trees to be removed legally this year.  The tree ordinance only requires replaced trees to be 2.5 inches in caliper (DBH), so even when a tree is replaced, the tree canopy is not.

As the number of building permits increase in the City of Atlanta, so do the number of healthy trees permitted for removal.  Until the City starts insisting on some zoning and building standards that preserve healthy trees, as opposed to allowing developers to automatically maximize their buildable area, we can expect to continue to lose thousands of trees each year.  It won't be long before 10,000 or more healthy trees being cut down each year in the City of Atlanta becomes the norm. 

Overall Net Tree Loss  ("Houston, we have a problem.")

In FY 2019 we lost nearly 16,000 trees total.  We project to lose 17,400 more trees this coming year. 

And what's more, they are not getting replaced. We suffered a total net loss of 9,228 trees last year (FY 2019).  Over the past two years, we've only been replacing 60% of the total trees lost.

(Click on the picture below for an expanded view.)

trees lost and replaced

 Problem is, size matters!  Replacement trees are but just a fraction of the size of the trees that are coming down.  93% of the total tree DBH inches removed these past two years were not replaced.

(Click on the picture below for an expanded view.)

inches lost and replaced

Folks, we can't replant our way out of this!  We need a new tree ordinance that does more than specify how tree removal permits will be assessed recompense, which is all the City Planning tree ordinance consultants seemed to be concerned about at the November 6 Tree Ordinance Rewrite Community Meeting.  We need a tree ordinance that saves our existing tree canopy before it's gone for good. 

Every month this tree ordinance rewrite drags on we are losing over 1,300 trees and the number keeps growing. Please contact your City Council representatives today.

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