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 :

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.



  1. 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.

    • Yes, they can provide so many valuable services — purifying air and water, helping to control runoff and flooding, recharging groundwater, reduced heating/cooling costs… not to mention food, habitat, and beauty.

  2. 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.

    • I share your love for prairies, Benjamin. Nothing compares with standing in a tallgrass prairie at the peak of the season (early October in the Upper Midwest) and being surrounded by such diversity of lively creatures and plants. They are truly amazing worlds. Of course, moss-and-fern-laden forests are also incredible. And bogs, I really love them. And a tranquil lake. A roaring river… Nature is pretty wonderful.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

    In Connecticut we are in a battle royal with our utilities who want to hack back anything that is within 12 feet of a power line–trees included. They had begun to do so and when folks saw the outright mauling of some of the trees that was occurring, we started to fight back.

    I think it will work–at least until the next widespread power outage anyway. Sigh.

    • Maybe it’s a statement about how overloaded your customer was in her daily life, that cherry blossoms falling onto her deck would be the final straw. It is crazy-making to apply indoor standards of cleanliness to the outdoors.

      I’m glad Connecticutians (what do you call yourselves?) are advocating that the city/utility give some thought to other possible solutions before disfiguring the trees permanently and perhaps compromising their health.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.”

    I very much appreciate your ideas for how we consider trees when addressing landscapes. I hope that they will get widespread consideration. Both for the benefits they afford to us as well as the for the rights of the trees themselves.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    You could always hire your own arborist, to trim and shape the tree in a way that maintains clearance yet keeps it healthy. And that’s a gorgeous Catalpa. I have one next to my vegetable garden that houses a wild honeybee hive

  9. 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”.

    Very sad what people do to their trees… In my area, it is very common to see every tree on the lot ruined by heavy equipment… Incredible that nobody tells the operator to stay away from the trees being kept…

    In my area… the woodland is ate up with invasives, like privet… with vines from hell, like smilax, and vitis, but… those can be alleviated with hand tools, and the mature trees are ruined forever when the heavy equipment run roughshod over everything.

    • Stone, thank you for commenting. I have seen development that levels entire acreages and destroys everything on them, including mature trees. Then, after the houses are built, new trees are planted. Why not work around the existing trees, leaving islands of intact landscaping that could repopulate the disturbed areas with soil organisms later?

      I don’t understand why more development does not preserve landscapes using a “building envelope” — restricting the area in which heavy machinery can be used to within 10 or 15 feet of the building’s footprint. I first read of this in Andy and Sally Wasowski’s 1995 book Native Landscaping from El Paso to L.A., and it makes so much sense. Maybe the cost is prohibitive.

      If you want to read the original 10-page paper that proposed the link between mammoths and osage oranges, here it is:

      • 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.

        When I talk about the heavy equipment damaging everything, I’m not talking about dozing everything, but rather attempting to keep the mature trees… but with no real understanding of the importance of keeping off the root zones… and the result is huge gouges in every tree, and compacted root zones, and the end result is the same as if the trees were simply pushed over.

        When the soil is compacted in construction, planting new trees isn’t going to result in much… they can’t send their roots through that impenetrable pan…. and It’s a real PITA for the landscaper…

        Thanks for the link (i’ll read it too). but I’d already found some great articles.

  10. Sadly, the trees don’t have rights and neither do the people who love them. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area hundreds of thousands of trees are being destroyed on our public lands because native plant advocates demand the return to the native landscape of grassland and dune scrub. The public objects to this pointless destruction. Here is one of the websites that represents the public’s opinion of these projects:

    Thank you for this excellent article about the value and importance of our trees.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

    Homeowners are in desperate need of tree education!

  13. I love love love trees – EXCEPT for the ones that grow around my house! I have giant trees completely surrounding my small suburban lot – 2 thirty-five ft Liquidambar and 5 fifty ft Platanus racemosa. Thats ALOT of crazy trees raining down basically uncompostable leaves (full of mildew/fungus btw) on a small house, impacting gutters, garden, sidewalks (they are street trees, and my sidewalks are buckled in 3 places. Somebody also planted an Araucaria araucana close to the sycamores, creating a disaster area!
    I have lived here for 17 years and never thought to remove these problematic trees, even though they are hellions. One of the sycamore exfoliates is branches to such an extent that I’ve considered putting up a sign warning of death from above.
    Not all trees are well chosen for their site. I struggle with my trees like the parent of a chronically naughty child must. But I leave them – even though I know their proximity to each other makes them less than healthy, and even a little dangerous. What to do? On the rare occasions when it rains, the camouflage bark of the sycamores leave me breathless. I love that crazy araucaria! And the liquidambar, even though people slip and fall as a result of their seedpods, remind me that even in Los Angeles, we can have seasonal color. So – my trees have rights… for now!

  14. 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.

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