Until a few weeks ago, there remained among the fast-food restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores and car dealerships lining the southern entrance to Whitefish one last stand of conifers, some of which were 125 years old.
This vestige of natural beauty shaded the Greenwood Trailer Court, some of the last affordable housing left in Whitefish.
Back in January, Greenwood owner Dennis Rasmussen put the property on the market. This summer he evicted the last of the residents who hadn’t already moved out, and most scattered outside of Whitefish, where they could no longer afford to stay. Almost all the trailers are gone now, and so are the trees.
In late November, Rasmussen had the land logged. The one-time conifer grove is now 12 acres of stumps, brush piles and abandoned trailers.
Rasmussen says he didn’t have the trees cut down for lumber. He removed the trees, he told the Independent, to help prepare it for the next owner to build on. The trees were ultimately sold for firewood.
But just as the demise of the trailer court brought fresh attention to the issue of affordable housing in Whitefish, the newly cut stumps have prompted the city council to ask the Whitefish Planning Department to study tree protection ordinances. Whitefish, like every other city in Montana, doesn’t currently have one.
Whitefish City Planner Bob Horne names several out-of-state cities that have tree protection ordinances, including Sammamish and Redmond, Wash. Typically, such ordinances apply to residential property, and restrict the cutting of healthy trees unless they are in danger of falling or stand in the footprint of new construction.
“Most progressive communities have these types of environmental measures in place,” Horne says.
For Dan Keyes, parks director for the city, all the talk of a tree protection ordinance must feel like déjà vu. About two years ago, he says, a large swath of trees was cut to make way for a new senior assisted living center in Whitefish. That cutting also caused an uproar in the community.
In response, the Whitefish City Council asked the city’s tree advisory committee to look into whether Whitefish needed its own tree protection ordinance. Keyes, who served as the staff member on that committee, says it spent two years weighing property rights and staffing issues and debating the need for such an ordinance.
Keyes says the committee finally reached a decision this fall to recommend against such an ordinance, saying it wasn’t necessary, and that it would infringe on people’s property rights.
“So then this guy cuts all these beautiful trees down,” he says. “It was a disaster.”
Citizens decried Rasmussen’s logging in letters sent to the local newspaper, the City Council and the parks department.
The Whitefish Pilot quoted City Council member Velvet Phillips-Sullivan as saying of Rasmussen, “I hope karma gets him,” at a council meeting.
It was only about two weeks after Rasmussen cut down his trees that the committee delivered its recommendation against an ordinance to the council.
Keyes stands by the committee’s decision, noting that “It’s really not a problem. It’s just one person.”
The council voted to take the committee’s recommendation under advisement, and has now asked the city planning department to take its own look at the prospects for a tree protection ordinance.
Horne is in favor.
“There are all kinds of studies showing that tree preservation is good business,” he says.
In Horne’s opinion, Rasmussen did not add any value to his land by logging it, and may have subtracted from it.
“I think Mr. Rasmussen did himself a real disservice,” he says.
Horne says that in order to get people to seriously consider a tree protection ordinance, the city needed a poster boy.
“Mr. Rasmussen has given us that poster boy. Actually, he has become that poster boy,” Horne says.
Rasmussen told the Independent he was unaware of his poster boy status.
“Nobody said anything to me,” he says.
Rasmussen points out that there were once big trees where the Mountain Mall now sits (as there once were just about everywhere in a city long known as “Stumptown”).
He also says many of the trees he cut were rotten, and that every year at least one blew down in a storm.
“They were dangerous trees,” he says.
Regardless, Rasmussen dismisses the community’s concerns out of hand.
“It’s none of their business what I do with my property.”
“Fortunately we still have some property rights,” he says, adding that when the state dictates what citizens can do on their property, “We might as well have something like Russia or China.”
Rasmussen fears that a tree protection ordinance would effectively constitute a property rights grab by the city.
Such fears, Horne says, could stand in the way of a tree protection ordinance. He stresses that, in his opinion, tree ordinances don’t impact property rights because they don’t prevent landowners from developing and using their property as they see fit. Typical ordinances allow trees growing in the footprint of new development to be removed.
“It’s a community character issue,” he says, comparing tree protection to ordinances preventing hog farming in town.
Furthermore, he says, tree protection ordinances don’t prevent cutting. “They just ask people to think before they cut.”
The planning department has done some preliminary research into tree ordinances, Horne says, but the push to finish the city’s growth policy will preclude any major work on the issue for now. In the meantime, the city’s remaining groves remain subject to the chainsaw.