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TREES, PLEASE: Stopping the Topping – “It’s the Law”

By Robin Rivet.

Tree topping is brutal. Although the term “butchered” is frequently used, butchers are highly skilled meat cutters. Tree topping is nothing short of “assault.” In 1991, the State of California adopted Public Resources Code, GOV § 53067 [1], which codified that tree-topping should be prohibited, and ordinances need to be adopted and enforced because the practice is unscientific and causes a risk to public safety [2], as well as threatening the health of valued urban trees [3]. When large tree limbs are headed back, epicormic re-growth is typically excessive and weakly attached [4]. Using tree topping to reduce canopy bulk or improve a view is a short-lived and shortsighted solution. Nevertheless, look around at parking lots, streets, homes, schools, churches, gas stations, hospitals and HOA’s; everyone seems to ignore the intent of the civil code.

Contractor's License Required

In addition, pruning or removal of any tree over 15 feet in California also requires a C-61/D-49 CA State Contractor’s license [5]. I do not know why many businesses and homeowners continue to risk extreme liability by hiring unlicensed, ill-trained individuals armed with chainsaws but zero qualifications; it stuns sensibility. Serious injuries are predictable [6], and mutilations, falls and deaths do occur [7]. Unsafely ascending trees and lopping off huge branches on demand, ignoring state regulations, and the need for proper insurance and workman’s compensation coverage, is so risky as to be ludicrous. Even capable, licensed tree contractors who prune large trees should have an ISA Certified Arborist on staff. These professionals are trained to supervise safety protocols and must meet ongoing educational requirements, including an understanding of tree biology.

Tree Topping Myths

Nevertheless, this appalling practice persists. Why? The justifications are troubling and largely based on myths and ignorance. One erroneous idea is that trees get “too tall”, or need annual “haircuts.” However, topping a tree is NOT like trimming head hair, which is dead tissue. Topping tree limbs is more like removing part of your scalp and brain. The statistics are grim, and I have documented over a hundred topped trees within just a few blocks of my home during the past few years. Sadly, this includes trees at a large, conspicuous community center. For the third time, trees on this property were topped and adjacent median trees mutilated. Joan Kroc, whose name graces the facility, was a noted tree aficionado. If she knew her philanthropic dollars supported scofflaws, and management who ignore repeated pleas to heed basic tree science, she would surely have protested.

What Can Be Done

I believe the prime reason these destructive practices continue is the lack of code-compliance and enforcement. Your municipality likely needs vigilant citizens to report illegal tree work, whether on commercial or private property [8]. Local horticulturists can also help to educate the public. Fortunately, although tree topping is always egregiously wrong, there are safer and smarter methods to gradually reduce tree size or address urban conflicts. Any decision needs to weigh public safety, as well as the carbon storage and sequestration capacity of an individual specimen. Given today’s climate-changing environment with ever-increasing urban heat islands, it’s vital to maximize tree canopy. Tree “police” simply do not exist, so it is mostly an honor system; unless someone is watching there is nothing to prevent tree topping. Today, the watcher is me.


Member Robin Rivet is an ISA Certified Arborist & City of La Mesa Environmental Commissioner – contact her:

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