GALVESTON — I received a couple phone calls last week after writing about this year’s scaled-back NeighborWoods program, a effort by the Galveston Island Tree Conservancy to replant trees, and bring back shady avenues, to city neighborhoods.
Most of the calls asked how a person can get a tree of their own or get the program to come to their neighborhood (the answer: contact the conservancy at firstname.lastname@example.org).
But one caller, who managed to ferret out my cell phone number, wanted to let me know about her concerns about the replanting project.
The caller, who insisted on remaining anonymous, laid numerous charges against the conservancy’s policies, including that the organizers were not being respectful of landowner’s wishes (especially in cases where a home is a rental), that roots of the live oak trees being planted would ruin sidewalks and, most intriguingly to me, that new trees would attract an ark’s worth of critters to the island
The call culminated with an explanation that trees bring squirrels, squirrels bring snakes and snake bring hawks. Those hawks, said the caller, could begin dropping snakes on tourist’s heads — which would be bad for everyone.
Lest this be a potential hazard to public safety, I reached out to the conservancy about any complaints they received and a pair of forestry experts to ask about the dangers about adding new flora to an ecosystem.
“It is hard for me to think that trees in general could be bad for the island,” said Dr. Carol Loopstra, a professor of biotechnology and dendrology at Texas A&M. “In my opinion, even if having trees meant having rodents, it would be worth it.”
Loopstra said that while she prefers other species over the live oak being planted by the conservancy, she had never heard of their roots ruining pavement.
“Many trees can ruin pavement but the TAMU campus has hundreds of live oaks and I haven't seen that they are a problem,” she said.
Pete Smith, the manager of A&M’s urban forestry program, said he worked with the city to help develop the list of trees that can be planted.
Smith said that infrastructure concerns were taken into consideration when the list of choices and guidelines were being generated. The planners went so far as to include trees that can be planted underneath power lines without having to worry about them growing too high.
As to the charge that more trees might bring more animals to the island, Smith said that’s kind of the point.
“The trees in Galveston are a critical habitat for birds and other animals in the Gulf Coast,” he said. Smith said that more animals would obviously result in more animal-related problems, but whether it would rise to the level of nuisance is up for debate.
(Unsurprisingly, there are few recorded instances of snakes escaping the clutches of a hawk only to land on the head of an unsuspecting person. Which is not to say the threat doesn’t exist. In 2001, a hawk in California dropped a 3-foot-long gopher snake on a power line, sparking a five-acre brush fire and threatening some luxury homes.)
As for complaint that landlords end up with trees on their property without having given permission to be there; the conservancy admits it can happen, but that they try to avoid it.
“We've insisted that if the resident wants a tree they must get permission from the landlord, and in fact, when we plant in front of rentals, most times the renters' names aren't on the response card,” Priscilla Files, the NeighborWoods organizer said. “Have we been 100 percent successful with that? Probably a couple of trees have slipped under the radar over the past three annual NeighborWoods, but by and large, that hasn't been an issue.”