What is a Tree Warden?
A tree warden is the designated individual in each Vermont community responsible for making determinations about public shade trees, such as those found on town greens and within the public right-of-way in town centers. State law in Vermont, as in all New England states, requires the legislative body of each municipality to appoint a tree warden. The tree warden's duties and responsibilities are officially outlined in the Vermont Tree Warden Statutes, which were first adopted in 1904 and were amended and updated in 2020. While many tree wardens are, by trade, trained arborists, foresters, or natural resources professionals and take on the role of tree warden as a volunteer, many others are already municipal employees within public works departments, parks departments, or roads crews.
Vermont's picturesque town greens and tree-lined streets are often the result of deliberate planning, planting, and care. Duties of the tree warden as outlined in the Tree Warden Statutes encompass protection, planting, care, and maintenance of existing public shade trees in addition to making decisions about shade tree removals. Many tree wardens expand upon these responsibilities to include tree assessments and inventories, sitting on the municipal tree committee or board as an ad hoc member, or helping to develop municipal bylaws and plans to ensure the long-term maintenance and management of the public tree population.
The position of tree warden is a unique legal responsibility, protecting and celebrating a natural resource. While tree wardens may not work directly with one another, the collective action they take ensure a unified commitment throughout Vermont to make our state a happy home for trees on public property.
Who is my Tree Warden?
In October 2019, the VT UCF Program compiled a current list of tree wardens and town clerk phone numbers. To contact your town tree warden, call your town clerk's office for information.
In some cases, a municipality's tree warden position is vacant, in which case the Selectboard or City Council acts as the tree warden. If you are interested in taking on the role of tree warden in your community, contact your town clerk.
Effective November 1st, 2020, municipalities will be required to report the name and contact information for their appointed tree warden annually to the Commissioner of Forests, Parks & Recreation in accordance with the updated tree warden statutes.
How can my municipality's tree warden help me?
According to the amended Tree Warden Statutes, the tree warden shall control all shade trees within the municipality.
A shade tree is defined as a shade or ornamental tree located in whole or in part within the limits of a public way or public place, provided that the tree is either (a) planted by the municipality or (b) is designated as a shade tree pursuant to a municipal shade tree preservation plan.
Public place is defined as municipal property, including a municipal park, a recreation area, or a municipal building. Public way is defined as a right-of-way held by a municipality, including a town highway.
Shade Tree Removal
Each municipality manages trees on public land, which includes town-owned parks, buildings, and properties i.e. cemeteries; this varies by municipality, as well as the public right-of-way. Within the public right-of-way, while the adjoining landowner owns the land, the municipality has the authority to maintain the trees - and all other public infrastructure like sidewalks, fire hydrants, street lights - within that land area.
According to the amended Tree Warden Statutes, the tree warden has the sole authority to make a determination regarding the removal of a shade tree, which - again- is a tree on a public way or place that has either been intentionally planted by the municipality or has been specifically identified and designated as a shade tree by the municipality. If a citizen has a concern regarding the health of a public shade tree or wishes to have a public shade tree removed for any reason, they need to first contact their tree warden.
In the event that the tree warden determines that a shade tree will be removed, they must post public notice and notify abutting landowners unless the shade tree is (a) a hazard to public safety, (b) must be removed to comply with State or federal law or permitting requirements, or (c) is infested with or threatened by a known forest pest and is within a designated infestation area. If the removal of the tree is appealed, the legislative body of the municipality will hold a public hearing and make a final decision after public comment is received.
Shade Tree Care and Planting
If you notice a need for public shade tree care such as pruning, mulching, or pest control, and/or an opportunity to plant tree(s), contact your tree warden. They can help assess the need and how the work might fit within the municipal shade tree care management plan.
In many cases, the tree warden is the person most familiar with the tree population in your town, thus possessing a wealth of knowledge. Keep your eyes peeled in your local bulletin for tree warden updates or events; many Vermont tree wardens are very engaged, so take advantage of the services they offer.
History of Vermont Tree Wardens
The history of tree wardens in Vermont is intrinsically linked to the history of tree wardens throughout New England. Massachusetts passed the first Tree Warden Statue in 1899, mandating the appointment of a tree warden in each community throughout the state. Other New England states followed shortly after, with Vermont mandating the role in the legislature in 1904.
Tree Wardens marked a turning point in the post-settlement philosophy regarding trees. Early European settlers cleared vast portions of the countryside and farmland developed alongside communities, changing the landscape from forests to fields. While a few tree societies sprouted between the 1600's and the 1800's, it wasn't until after the Civil War that the need for someone to "speak for the trees" was recognized. In the midst of an industrial boom, Americans were starting to see that city-living would only be tolerable if it were to be accompanied by greenery and outdoor spaces. Cities and villages began to plan parks and plant trees along roadsides. This paired with the increased attention to public safety and a municipality's responsibility to manage its infrastructure set the stage for the development of the role of the tree warden across New England.
Tree warden responsibilities today are similar to what they were at the turn of the century: to care for, control, and make hazard determinations regarding public trees. While the ultimate goal for tree wardens may not have changed much in the last hundred some years, the world we live in certainly has. Where the first tree wardens stood to protect trees from harmful pruning and unnecessary cutting, tree wardens today wage a different battle. From damaging road salt to encroaching power lines, tree wardens now manage trees in new ways.
Tree Warden Profiles