By Derek Lirange 

Did you know that if you live in Massachusetts, you have a Tree Warden? As you might be able to guess from the name, a Tree Warden is someone who cares for trees, who sees to their protection and well-being, specifically trees on public roads. By law every city and town in Massachusetts has to have a Tree Warden.  

Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 41, requires that all towns have a Tree Warden and then in Chapter 87 they define the duties of the Tree Warden and all of the protections given to “Public Shade Trees.” There are a lot of conditions in this chapter which make it difficult to remove a tree without good cause and letting people have a say in its removal. It also makes injuring a tree a punishable offense. Parts of the law are a little dated, like the part that basically says that you’re responsible for any damages done to a tree by your horse. But the spirit of the law is actually quite progressive, and fairly unique, not every state has similar protections for trees. And what’s amazing is that this isn’t a law that was passed recently, this law was originally passed in the 1890s!  

Massachusetts has long been concerned with the well being of its public trees, but our Tree Wardens rarely get much fanfare. As was said earlier, very few people even know that their town is supposed to have a tree warden, much less who the tree warden is. And sometimes there’s a good reason for that, sometimes the tree warden is just the head of the Public Works department, someone with another job in the town who gets appointed to also be the Tree Warden. And sometimes that works just fine. For instance, in Worcester the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Cemeteries is the Tree Warden, but he supervises the Forestry Division, which is run by a well trained, certified arborist. Tower Hill’s Worcester Tree Initiative program works well as a partner with the Tree Warden and the Head of Forestry in Worcester. We help to care for the public, street trees from planting through the first five years or so. But the great model we see in Worcester isn’t always possible in other cities and towns. The person in charge of protecting the trees may not have a background in urban forest management, the community support, or even much of an interest in the well-being of the trees they are meant to protect. 

It’s good to know who’s got the job in your town. When you see a tree on your street that needs pruning, you should know who to call. If you would like a new tree planted in front of your house, your Tree Warden can make that happen. And finding out who your Tree Warden is shouldn’t be too difficult. For starters, you can always ask your Town Clerk at City Hall; they should have that information on record and it’s your right to know. You could also ask the folks at the Massachusetts Tree Wardens Association (MTWA). As its name suggests, this is a group of Tree Wardens from around the state that meet to learn from and with one another. Not every town sends their tree warden to the monthly meetings, but the Association has records of every known Tree Warden in the state and can help you to figure out who your Warden is and how to contact them. You can learn more about the MTWA on their website, Tower Hill’s Director of Outreach and Community Engagement, Ruth Seward, sits on the MTWA board and regularly attends their meetings to offer the perspective of a non-profit working alongside local officials to care for the urban forest. 

While it’s ideal that someone well qualified for the job have the position of Tree Warden, whether they are qualified or not they can benefit from the help and guidance of a group of tree loving citizens. Several towns throughout Massachusetts have created Public Shade Tree Commissions and Committees which help to fulfill some of the functions of the Tree Warden. These commissions may help oversee or guide planting, maintaining, preservation, and removal activities and recommend by-laws for the city or town to strengthen protections for trees. And whether your town has one of these or not, your Tree Warden needs your insight. No one can keep their eyes on all of the hundreds of miles of road in their town at all times. So if you see something wrong with a tree, let someone know, and don’t assume they already know about it. Together we can make our community forests even better. 

Derek Lirange is a community forester for Tower Hill Botanic Garden.