It’s been about five years since Donald Trump — the presidential candidate who at this point needs no introduction — clear cut trees to provide “unobstructed views” of the Potomac River from his Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County, VA.
Locals and environmental groups have expressed varying degrees of distaste for the way, in Trump’s own words, he used “artists with bulldozers” to remove 460 trees from the shore after he purchased the golf course in 2009.
Removing more than a mile and a half of shoreline tree cover would have been illegal without special permission had the golf course been located three miles downriver, in Fairfax County. But Loudoun County doesn’t have the same restrictions on riverside tree removal, said Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy.
And that’s where he sees opportunity in revisiting the Trump tree debacle at, shall we say, this particular political moment.
Belin wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Sunday, July 17 titled, “Why Donald Trump’s view on trees is wrong,” after Trump had recently returned to the golf course to trumpet his investments in the local landscape.
Since stories about Donald Trump have topped the Post’s most read list for weeks, it was certainly worth a shot at garnering more attention for the local issue.
And, if petitions are any indication, it worked.
The Potomac Conservancy launched a petition on Change.org this summer demanding that Trump “fix his clear cutting disaster” by donating 500 mature trees to NOVA Parks by Oct. 31, to be planted in Loudoun County.
The petition has nearly reached its 5,000-signature goal, making it the most successful petition the Conservancy has ever launched. It remains to be seen whether such a petition would induce Trump to act (if his reaction to a recent Op-Ed criticizing him is any indication, perhaps not).
Belin, whose organization tried to approach Trump’s early on about replacing the trees, said he was originally told they were removed to prevent erosion. If that was the case, Trump seems to be operating under a different memo now. Here’s what he had to say while making remarks at the golf course in June, according to a Washington Post reporter who was there:
“What we did is basically blew up the property. We built a brand-new championship course that is built to the highest standards of championship play, to the highest standards of audience and viewership, to the highest standards of golf,” (Trump) said.
This, the reporter writes, involved cutting down a lot of trees, approximately 465 of them, causing consternation among environmentalists and some public officials. Trump said he didn’t buy the property to have a “little glimpse” of the Potomac.
“Originally we had massive trees — you couldn’t see anything,” he said, standing on an overlook above a man-made waterfall. “And through lots of hard work, and lots of environmental impact statements and lots of everything, we were able to clear the area and now we have unobstructed views of the Potomac River. There’s nothing like it. You can go 20 miles up and down the river and there’s nothing like it.”
That is because Trump’s stretch of the Potomac shoreline is the largest portion between Harper’s Ferry, WVA, and Washington, D.C., that doesn’t have tree cover, Belin said.
Trump makes it sound as if those trees were little more than an obstruction. And he is not the only very rich person who was able to come into an area with a lot of trees and remove them. A certain owner of a certain football team in Washington removed 140 trees on his Potomac River property so he could have, yes, “unobstructed views” of the Potomac River.
Here’s the thing about trees and views: Cutting them down may give you a better view of the water, but it will almost certainly make that water dirtier. Trees are, increasingly, the answer to whatever the question is about the environment. They reduce heat. They slow erosion. They help negate the increasing carbon loads in the atmosphere. They take up nitrogen and phosphorus so that pollution doesn’t head further downstream. Cities like Baltimore and Washington are paying staffers to plant trees, and working with nonprofits like the Potomac Conservancy to maximize their efforts and plant even more.Tree-hugger may be a bad word to the Trumps (and Snyders) of the world, but this part might touch their hearts: Trees are also one of the least expensive ways to solve our environmental problems. Stream restoration costs millions of dollars. But trees? They were already there, until Trump removed them.
And even Trump occasionally has to drink tap water, right? The Potomac River provides drinking water to nearly 5 million people in the region. Trees and forested buffers help keep it clean, so that the efforts to treat the water will, in fact, cost less. Isn’t that a pretty good deal, getting trees to do the work for you, and for free?
But no amount of public pressure seemed to help in the case of Trump or Snyder, both of whose cases were well-reported at the time. And that’s because, if the jurisdiction doesn’t have strong protections in place, the property owners can remove the trees. It’s worth noting that, even in places WITH strong protection, exceptions are often made. Not so much for the waterfront homeowner with two trees that are gnarly and need to go, but often with the person down the street who wants to clear a quarter-mile of shoreline. That homeowner has lawyers, permit guys, a staff to handle the inconveniences of government bureaucracy. That homeowner, more likely than not, will win.
That’s the other goal of the Conservancy’s petition: to raise awareness about “the threat of weak clean water protections in places like Loudoun County, VA, and Frederick County, MD,” Belin said.
Belin added that treed shorelines are protected in all the tidal counties of the Chesapeake Bay, such as Loudoun’s neighboring Fairfax County, VA. He’d like to see those protections extended upriver.
Loudoun tried to put the protections in several years ago. As the Bay Journal’s Rona Kobell reported then, it did not go well.
We asked Belin if he could ask for a better match-up in this petition signing effort than Trump vs. trees.“It’s a return on luck,” he said. “We had some bad luck in that he cut down all the trees. But I think it’s a way to draw attention to a bigger issue, which is what we’re trying to do.”
This is one property, Belin added, “and it’s really awful what happened, but we’ve got to make sure we put in place protections so something like this won’t happen again – whether or not the owner’s last name is Trump.”
Rona Kobell contributed to this story.