Tree Removal Laws for Your Property

Sonoma County Gazette, "Tree Removal Laws for Your Property - Sonoma County & California Laws", November 30, 2012

By Vesta Copestakes, Co-written with Jeff Rebischung of Fine Tree Care*

* This is, in essence, part 2 of the article we ran in the November edition People Power Stops Timber Harvest about the Hacienda neighborhood in Forestville. When I researched that story, I asked Jeff Rebischung (a Gazette advertiser) about the laws on small timber harvests, since he is a Licensed Timber Operator. In talking with Kimberly Sone, the CalFire Division Chief who is responsible for inspecting those jobs (and subsequently stopped them when violations occurred), she told me that Fine Tree Care is regarded as an authority on this subject. Jeff wrote a very detailed version of this article, filled with laws and legal language, which I translated.

It’s My Land. I can do anything I want…NOT!

Can I cut down trees on my own property?

It’s YOUR land..right? Therefore you can do anything you want because you own it and are responsible for it.

That may seem logical, but it’s simply not the case, especially if you are part of a watershed, or your property is along a creek or river. What you do with your land has impacts far beyond your parcel boundaries, so you have to live within the laws.

What laws?

If you are trimming trees, that’s one thing, but if you are removing them…Forest Practice Laws come into play. You may think that Timber Harvest Plans only apply to people taking out lots of trees on acres of land, but that’s not the case. Homeowners removing trees to eliminate fire hazards, or because trees are too close to the house, also have to comply with these laws.

Redwood trees being harvested without the necessary permits

A simple and useful approach is to make a few calls yourself. A quick chat with Cal-Fire, Fish and Game, the County, (and NOAA Fisheries if you are near a watercourse that might contain salmon) will give you an idea of what can and cannot be done before you get too deep into the project.Fortunately, Cal-Fire Forestry Inspectors can provide consultation prior to starting the project. They will let you know what to do – and more importantly, what NOT to do. When in doubt about the rules, request a determination by the agency responsible for oversight.

So how do I know if I need a permit?

This service should be part of work provided by the tree company you hire, so make sure they are a Licensed Timber Operator (LTO) before you take the next step. That license lets you know the tree service is more than a pruning company…they have the experience, expertise and credentials to do the job. Ask if they have a Registered Professional Forester, on staff or independently, to review your plan PRIOR to the beginning of harvest, to make sure it is legally and environmentally sound.

For homeowners, a Cal-Fire Timber Harvest Exemption Notice does not require detailed review before starting the job, and relies heavily on the expertise of the Timber Operator. In many ways, CalFire assumes that since you have an expert in the field (LTO), that expert knows what s/he’s doing.

But I’m just cutting a few trees!

“Exemption Notices” such as a Fire Hazard Exemption, (cutting trees close to a house to protect it from fire) have strict rules around the number of trees that may be harvested on a small piece of land. For an example, a clear-cut is not allowed. There is even additional required work to the tree harvesting itself. Sometimes, the county rules conflict with other rules, or run against property boundaries, or erosion issues.

A fire hazard exemption requires treating the surrounding vegetation to the county standard in order to qualify for that fire hazard exemption. You may not be able to merely harvest trees, and then consider the work finished. You are requires to address other fire hazards, such as bushes, branches, debris, etc. on the property near structures.

Who is legally responsible – me or my tree service?

The LTO is required to know all applicable laws and rules related to conducting timber operations, assist the landowner with forms, inspection and filing, BUT it’s the landowner who is liable and responsible. You hired the professional…you are responsible. Like so many other laws, ignorance is no excuse.

As plainly stated on an “Exemption Notice”, the Forest Practice Rules are critical for the landowner to fully understand PRIOR to harvest, because the landowner directly incurs liability.

Since a private property tree removal exemption requires no professional oversight, this can easily spell disaster, and get very, very expensive. Environmental damage, loss of neighborhood aesthetic, and property values can result in angry neighbors as well as expensive fines.

Why all these rules?

Rules are created because people do things that create havoc for the environment when they harvest trees. There are also plenty of people who would do whatever they want without concern for neighbors, trees, wildlife, etc. Rules and laws have a lot in common…you break the rules… you pay legal consequences. It’s not just the environment that suffers.

The intent of the Forest Practice Rules is that a Registered Professional Forester (RPF), who prepares a Timber Harvest Plan (THP), will consider the range of tree harvest methods, operating methods, and procedures to avoid adverse effects on the environment from harvesting. Basically, the RPF creates a written “how-to-do-it” plan for a LTO to follow.

What Homeowners get is an EXEMPTION – in essence, a notice that says this is a small job, and it doesn’t require the full oversight of a large timber harvest.

What does Cal-Fire consider to approve a plan?

Basically, they want to make sure that trees are removed in a way that does the least amount of harm to wildlife habitat, that diversity of plant life is maintained, shade and sun balanced for a particular environment, and watersheds and watercourses are disturbed the least amount possible.

For instance, if protected species are in the area, then either the work is not done, or it is postponed during mating and rearing stages. If trees are removed on a hillside, then potential erosion is part of what is considered, monitored and controlled. There are many factors, and they all need to be taken into consideration

Why is this important?

Forests, and the individual trees that make that forest, are a Public Resource. Homeowners cannot be expected to know environmental issues, laws and rules. These laws exist to protect the environment as a whole, an entire watershed, a climate zone, whatever applies to the area in which you live. Your neighborhood and neighbors are part of the overall picture. It’s not just you and your yard.

My property is near a lake, river, or stream.

The area of greatest liability, and often confusion, is surrounding the issue of harvesting timber in or near Watercourse and Lake Protection Zones also known as a (WLPZ). Customarily, harvesting timber is not allowed in this area. Due to the potential exposure to liability, it is best to find a Timber Operator with experience in environmentally sensitive areas if you live along a watercourse. Ask to review a work-site currently under way. This will tell you a lot more about the business you are hiring than a single interaction with someone from a company.

Check references and request direct testimonial from people with similar type of jobs – past performance is the best indicator of future performance. Basically, trees can’t be “put back” and they can’t be “fixed” once they are damaged. It takes many years for an environmentally sensitive area to recover from damage.

A License is not enough.

Check for an absence of significant violations and citations, especially non-correctable forestry citations and resulting civil penalties. Find someone who has a proven track record, and who isn’t afraid to call Cal-Fire or Fish and Game inspectors to review the work.

Although you shouldn’t shy away from “I don’t know, let me find the answer to your question and get back to you with an answer.” - you may be in trouble if that LTO is unable to explain all of the rules that apply to your situation.

Beware of over-harvesting

Be especially careful if the LTO encourages you to remove more trees than your original intent. Trees removed for lumber (as in Redwoods) may offset expense, but if removal does not have a clear benefit to your property, don’t do it. You may be creating problems for yourself that you can’t foresee. Once you have a permit in hand, make sure that ONLY work defined on your permit is done.

Take advantage of oversight

When in doubt, simply request the assistance of a Forestry Inspector. They are willing to educate, assist, and facilitate a landowner in an issue or process surrounding timber harvests, environmental concerns, and anything within their professional capacity to help. They are just really great people who will do their best to assist you.

Here is a list of Sonoma County resources:

Cal-Fire - Northern Administration Regional Office

  • Santa Rosa Office
  • (707) 576-2275
  • www.calfire.ca.gov
  • Tim Streblow – Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit
  • (707) 967-1400

California Department of Fish and Game

NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement