Photo: Linda Grist Cunningham, in Key West Island News

“Historically, the Key West tree canopy boasted little in the way of shade trees. We are an inhospitable, oolite limestone island in the middle of salt water. What green things we had were more scraggly than soaring, the results of birds and other creatures using the island as a bathroom while stopping over on ways elsewhere.

Then came the 1920s and 1930s, when garden clubs and botanical societies held tree giveaways and encouraged folks to bring back seedlings from their travels.

That’s how we ended up with so many mahoganies, royal poincianas and other canopy trees. They didn’t spring up magically; we planted them. Sadly, most often, not in the right place. Then we built houses and pools and streets right on top of their roots. We assumed they’d live forever.

Today, the Key West tree canopy faces two life-threatening challenges: (1) The trees planted 75-100 years ago are struggling; and (2) Florida’s determination to strip municipalities of their home rule powers…

On June 26, 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis gutted Florida tree commission regulations when he signed HB 1159…

… during its 2022 regular session, the Legislature amended the 2019 law to replace “danger” with “unacceptable risk.” It said a tree poses an unacceptable risk “if removal is the only means of practically mitigating its risk below moderate as determined by the tree risk assessment procedures outlined in (ISA) Best Management Practices — Tree Risk Assessment, Second Edition (2017).” That complicated wording means some very specific things.

On July 1, when the amended law is in place, municipalities can use it to claw back some local control over tree removal. The amendment can become the first of three ways we can strengthen the Key West tree canopy:

1. File ethics violations with the ISA. Florida’s law now requires an ISA tree risk assessment, which now includes a detailed, on-site review by ISA-certified tree experts. Signing a deliberately inaccurate assessment is an ISA ethics violation. ISA will investigate and can pull the certification…

2. Approve removal permit requests and require replacement — on property whenever possible. The amended law, like its predecessor, forbids municipalities from requiring replacements for trees taken down under the law. But, if a homeowner can’t get a certified tree expert to certify that a protected tree is an “unacceptable risk,” then said homeowner needs a permit from the tree commission. If the tree commission says “no,” and if there’s an unethical tree expert or some fly-by-night dude with a chainsaw, that tree is coming down. No replacement. If the tree commission grants the permit, it can (and does) require replacement…

3. Declare a ceasefire on blaming the city. The state’s preemption appetite is the enemy. Let’s direct our frustrations where they belong. Join other groups in other Florida municipalities to advocate for our canopy. Plant the right tree in the right place — and take care of it…”

— Linda Grist Cunningham, Special To The Citizen

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Citizens for a Scenic Florida