Do Trees Have Rights?

Let us consider the non-mobile, those who live at a slower speed than humans, those who conduct many “activities of daily living” underground. I’m talking about trees.

Bound to its place place to a degree that most modern humans cannot comprehend, a tree must make do with only those resources at hand for its entire life. It must attract or find within its reach all that it requires to sustain it. It must be able to re-ingest any waste it produces, because that waste becomes an inescapable part of its environment.

Mature saguaro cacti function as “wildlife hotels,” providing food and shelter for numerous other species, including diverse pollinators and cavity-nesting birds.

Trees have developed elegant strategies for meeting their needs while remaining fixed in their places. These strategies include developing helpful connections with other species. Birds, rodents, and for some unlucky trees, extinct large mammals bring in fertilizer and spread a tree’s seeds (and thus its species) to new locations. Microbes, worms, and other soil dwellers digest fallen leaves and return their nutrients to the tree. Mycorrhizal fungi extend the tree’s reach and amplify its digestive power, channeling water and nutrients to the tree in exchange for sugars and starches secreted by its roots. Because of its many connections, one tree can support an astonishing quantity and variety of other life.

Throughout human history, trees have developed strong ties with us as well.

They are useful, of course, for much more than their wood. Tree crops provide staple foods for many cultures—think of the Middle East and its olive trees, the tropical islands and their coconuts, California and its citrus varieties, the all-important coffee and cocoa beans. Not to mention other types of non-timber products derived from trees: rubber, cork, maple syrup, turpentine, and cinnamon, to name a few.

But aside from their contributions to our survival and comfort, trees have also been appreciated simply for being their magnificent selves. They were part of our cultures and communities in a way that many of us no longer remember. Sacred trees and sacred groves were cared for by people and incorporated into cultural celebrations and rituals. We have some remnants of this connection in various programs that recognize special trees.

Many years ago, I trekked to the “witch tree”—a revered landmark on the shore of Lake Superior—and sprinkled an offering of tobacco, as other people have done for centuries.

Though most children now grow up in cities, a child in a previous generation might have formed a special relationship with a favorite climbing tree or a tree that produced delicious fruits. Mature trees served as landmarks, and new trees were planted to mark an auspicious birth or commemorate the death of a loved one. Pioneers planted “coffin pine” trees in pairs on either side of a new home’s driveway, to be used for constructing the homeowners’ future caskets.

Nowadays, we move so often that we barely notice our trees, let alone knowing their histories and having our own stories intertwine with theirs. Our only chance to live with a mature tree may be if someone else planted one decades ago—and all the intervening landowners cared enough about that tree to allow it to continue to live and thrive.

Indeed, our modern culture tends to regard trees as consumables, or ornaments that we can move or remove at will. It is still too common to drive down a street and see signs of that obsolete practice known as tree-topping. Decades after Joni Mitchell sang about paving paradise, the onward march of development threatens ancient woodlands. Many a tree’s health is compromised by the landowner’s attempts to maintain a healthy lawn under it, applying fertilizers and pesticides, compacting the soil with a riding mower, and raking away leaves.

Fallen osage oranges fruitlessly await wooly mammoths.

These trees are often located on private land. Still, do their potential lives, which may stretch centuries into the future, merit some consideration when making decisions that will affect them?

Suppose we sidestep the fraught discussions of “weed trees,” invasive species, live Christmas trees, and trees that are eclipsing the sun for vegetable growers. Here are several less controversial improvements we could make in how we treat and think of trees when designing and revising our landscapes :

  • modifying a design to accommodate existing trees
  • using trees to reduce stormwater runoff
  • incorporating them into paved areas with structural soil
  • taking extra steps to protect them during construction
  • considering their financial value when evaluating options

The debate about the ethical treatment of trees can be traced back to law professor Christopher Stone’s 1972 landmark essay, “Should Trees Have Standing?“—less than a year after publication of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Stone’s subsequent book served as the underpinning for Ecuador’s 2008 revision of its constitution, which recognizes the fundamental rights of nature to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

A favorite tree of my childhood was the mature catalpa next to my grandparents’ house. Throughout the year it rained toys, carpeting a vast area with huge white flowers, yellow heart-shaped leaves, and long brown seedpods. Alas, it became “too messy” for Grandma.


Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on February 19, 2014 at 3:40 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.

Comment List

  • Andy 16 / 12 / 2015

    Trees not only bring color and beauty into our lives they clean our air for us to breathe. Even after their deaths they provide natural habitat for insects and fungi.

  • Benjamin Vogt 27 / 06 / 2016

    I once read that for every caliper inch of a mature tree, consider $1,000 in value to the property. So, a 12″ tree is worth $12,000. I think that’s a bit high. Several years ago the Swiss court heard a case considering if flowers had rights, and if a willy nilly deadheading in the field was illegal and even unethical. If we had these thoughts about plants — shoot, if we even had them about animals (even all domesticated ones) — we’d be better off environmentally and psychologically. I always advocate hugging a prairie, the most endangered and least protected ecosystem on the planet (77% of the Great Plains will be completely gone by 2100 if not sooner). Hug a plant.

  • admin 01 / 09 / 2016

    Catalpa trees are beautiful. Unfortunately most people will not stand for a messy tree. The black walnut that dents my van in my driveway does irritate me. And the old woman who lived here before me swept the driveway several times a day to prevent the staining. The purple bird poo in the spring on my driveway is quite entertaining for my kids. The birds do love my serviceberries. It is unfortunate that people can’t seem to handle a bit more mess in their lives.

  • Karla 30 / 10 / 2016

    Back in my days of retail gardening, I remember a customer saying that messy trees should be “illegal.” And she was referring to a flowering cherry that dropped beautiful petals on her deck every morning for a total of what? Maybe a week? Some folks really can’t handle mess!

  • John 01 / 11 / 2016

    I read a post a few months ago on a similar topic and while scrolling through the comments noted that one person said essentially that all trees are walking death traps and should be removed, all of them, from everywhere. For this particular commenter, a tree had fallen on his garage during a thunderstorm years ago and dented his vehicle, an unpardonable crime in his mind. People never seem to be able to recognize the benefits of trees, only focusing on the mess they make, or the potential hazard they represent.

  • Ellen 12 / 11 / 2016

    Lack of appreciation for a single type of organism (such as the value of trees and the rights that they have to be here) reminds me of the John Muir quote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

  • The Phytophactor 18 / 11 / 2016

    So glad you mentioned Stone’s legal treatise arguing that trees deserve rights; it’s the first thing I thought of when I saw the title of the blog, but then I’m old enough to remember when it was published. The book still resides on my book shelves and it presents a compelling argument and much recommended. For those of you intimidated by “scholarly” books; it’s short.

  • Paul 20 / 11 / 2016

    Most of the problems utilities have with trees could be curtailed if people would pay the rates necessary to bury the lines. Line-clearing arborists, or tree butchers as some call them, operate under the goal of maintaining minimum clearance from a utility line.

  • admin 21 / 11 / 2016

    I enjoyed the comment about woolly mammoths and osage orange… enough to go searching additional information about this previously unconsidered connection.
    I’m presently reading a document called “The Ghosts Of Evolution”.

  • admin 21 / 11 / 2016

    I’m not finding the article today, but seems like the ladybird wildflower center had a discussion about protecting the trees during construction, with big ribbons around the dripline of protected keepers, and a discussion of the value of each… and the understanding that the contractor would be responsible for damages.

  • admin 21 / 11 / 2016

    I LOVE trees and their beautiful structures. Although I live in a semi-desert area with not many trees as part of the natural landscape, I am always gazing at the trees in view while driving around, (oops, could be hazardous) looking for ones with superb form. Anyway, I agree with some commenters, many, many people take everything a tree does on a daily basis (shelter for homes & wildlife, clean the air, stabilize dirt, etc…) for granted. These benefits are SO taken for granted many consider a tree a ‘problem’ and don’t think twice about removing something that has been alive over a hundred years…much longer than they can expect to live!

  • Hoov 22 / 11 / 2016

    The ignorance about trees is a major contributor to their demise. Planting a tree that gets 60′ wide within 5′ of a house. Planting a tree that gets 60′ tall directly under power lines. Planting a riparian tree right next to a sidewalk, where the spreading surface roots buckle the concrete. I’ve read the overwhelming majority of trees are cut down simply because they were planted too close to structures.

  • Linnea Borealis 22 / 11 / 2016

    Do tell me more about osage orange and wooly mammoths!! Another blog post, perhaps?

  • Deirdre 22 / 11 / 2016

    The city of Seattle has rules about removing “significant” trees; any tree with a caliper of 6″ or more. One needs a permit to remove them. Some places take it to a silly extreme. A nearby town requires a permit to remove any tree, and requires that six trees be planted for each tree removed. How many suburban lots have room for six trees? I have a giant black walnut in my backyard. In addition to limiting what I can plant, it was not trained into a single leader (It was a volunteer). It’s just a matter of time until the crown splits. Still, it is a magnificent thing, and it will stay until it does.

  • Glenn Butler 22 / 11 / 2016

    Could the tree be preserved longer by having a support system installed by a competent arborist?

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