Tree Removal Trends (thru 2nd Qtr 2020)

The Impact of COVID-19 on Atlanta’s Trees

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on tree cutting in Atlanta according to the most recent quarterly report (FY 2020–4 Qtr Report) released on August 20, 2020.

  • Overall, tree cutting is down by 20%, including trees that are dead, dying or hazardous (DDH);
  • Trees removed for construction purposes are down by 32%;


  • Illegal tree cutting is up by 4%, and
  • almost all DDH permit applications (98.3%) are now being approved!

By the end of June 2020, trees removed as DDH represented 60% of all trees cut, and since no replacement or recompense is required for DDH trees, six out of ten trees removed in Atlanta now don’t have to be replaced.

The percentage of trees cut illegally also increased, from 5 to 7% of all trees, whereas the percentage of trees cut for construction fell from 38% to 33%

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

trees permitted for removal

The reason so many trees are now being taken down as DDH is that, during COVID-19, the city arborists have been denying less than 2% of the DDH tree permit applications.  This approval rate of > 98% is far more lenient than the approval rate of 81% a year ago. The Arborist Division offices are closed due to COVID-19 and the field arborists are no longer inspecting DDH trees onsite.  Instead, they are relying exclusively on documentation submitted by the DDH permit applicant to determine the heath of a DDH tree.

DDH trees removed during the 2nd quarter were, on average, 33% larger than healthy trees removed legally, having an average diameter of breast height over 20 inches. 

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

trees permitted as ddh

The Arborist Division office closure during the pandemic also may be encouraging more illegal tree cutting.  Whereas tree cutting overall was down by 20%, illegal tree cutting rose by 4% this quarter. Eighteen percent of all healthy (non-DDH) trees removed were cut illegally, up from 12% the previous quarter. 

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

trees cut illegally1

Unfortunately, having fewer trees cut during the 2nd quarter did not help retain canopy given that tree replanting also declined, resulting in a 7% increase in net loss of trees (2,274 trees). Only 30% of all removed trees were scheduled to be replanted, down from 47% the quarter before. And because the replanted trees were also smaller in diameter than in the past, and destroyed trees were larger, tree trunk inches replaced fell from 9% to 5%. 

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

trees replanted


Conduct On-Site Inspections and Provide More Reporting for DDH Permits

As we have said in previous trend reports, the percentage of trees being taken down as DDH has been steadily increasing over the past year, and during COVID-19, a DDH permit has become the freebie which almost no one is denied. The Arborist Division claims that COVID-19 makes it untenable for them to inspect potential DDH trees in person; rather they must rely on a tree inspection report and pictures submitted by the DDH permit applicant to determine whether or not a tree is DDH.

However, the Arborist Division’s COVID-19 remote inspection procedures are resulting in the approval of almost every DDH single permit application. While the Arborist Division has been sending one field arborist out into the field to investigate complaints, the other field arborists are all working from home.  We see no reason for all the field arborists to not be in the field inspecting trees, too, since this activity can be done outdoors without any human interaction.  The City of Atlanta has placed no COVID-19 restrictions on tree workers, declaring them “essential workers”.  Shouldn’t the City employees who inspect essential workers be considered “essential”, too?    

Additionally, the lack of DDH permitting information in Accela, the City’s online permitting database, makes it nearly impossible to hold the city arborists accountable for which trees they are allowing to be cut as DDH.  Presently, the Accela Citizen version of the City’s permitting database allows one to see that a permit application has been made, but most often it does not include any information on the actual trees included in the permit, nor does it show which trees have been permitted or denied.  Furthermore, Accela does not include the pictures nor the inspection report submitted with the permit application to document the health of the tree(s). Without this information, and the right to appeal a DDH tree permit (an exploited loophole in the current Tree Ordinance), there is no public oversight over the DDH permitting process.

Increase Deterrents to Illegal Tree Cutting

COVID-19 may have slowed legal tree cutting, but illegal tree cutting is proceeding full steam ahead. The good news is that a number of these illegal tree cuttings are being reported and fines are being assessed.  However, a fine and recompense payment do not actually replace the tree, as we have seen most of the current Tree Trust Fund money that is supposed to go towards tree replanting being diverted elsewhere, and City Planning plans to spend even less of the fund on tree-replanting going forward.

It is time for the Arborist Division to take immediate action to address the lack of meaningful penalties in the Tree Ordinance to deter illegal tree cutting.  With penalties for illegal tree destruction being only $500 for the first tree and $1000 for every tree after that (in addition to replacement/recompense fees), there is not enough incentive in the current Tree Ordinance to protect trees. 

Increase Tree Replanting on Site Plans

We were momentarily encouraged by the uptick we saw in tree replanting indicated in approved permits during the first quarter of 2020, but for some reason, scheduled tree replanting sharply declined in the 2nd quarter. It is not immediately clear how COVID-19 would impact tree replacement since “replaced trees” are indicated on the permitted site plan, not actually planted at the time the permit is issued.  We would like to encourage the plan reviewers to push for greater tree replanting on properties that are being developed rather than just assessing recompense, given that recompense funds placed in the Tree Trust Fund are most often NOT spent on replanting trees.

Quarterly Report Requirements

The posting of the Quarterly Report by the Arborist Division City was a little quicker this quarter than last – we waited 7 weeks after the end of the quarter to receive the report compared to 11 weeks last quarter.  However, we know the quarterly reports can be released sooner given the first quarterly report we received (3rd quarter 2019) was available within 2 weeks after the end of the quarter.  This most recent quarterly report showed that significant changes can happen from one quarter to the next, which emphasizes the need to not only have arborist reports produced on a quarterly basis but to also have them produced on a more timely basis.

Click here for more charts showing the results of the latest quarterly report. 

*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.

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