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‘It provides shade and privacy’: My neighbor wants me to cut down my 20-year-old oak tree. Can he force me to?

‘It provides shade and privacy’: My neighbor wants me to cut down my 20-year-old oak tree. Can he force me to?

I have a healthy 20-year-old oak tree that my neighbor is convinced is going to fall on his house. It provides shade and privacy for me, and it’s a beautiful specimen.

How do I explain to my neighbor that removing the tree is not going to happen? Our community consists of small lots with large homes. 

Who is liable if a tree falls onto a neighbor’s property? My tree is in a corner of my lot abutting three other homes in our neighborhood.

I want to be a good neighbor, but I also don’t want to be a pushover.

Good Neighbor in GeorgiaDear Neighbor,

It’s illegal to cut down a neighbor’s tree without their permission or a ruling from a local court, so you have the upper hand — or branch, in this case — in this dispute. If you woke up one morning to find your tree had been cut down while you slept, you would have the right to file a police report. You’d also want to talk to your insurance company, your attorney and — of course — your neighbor.  

But before it comes to that, you should remind your neighbor of your rights, which differ depending on the state you live in. A neighbor cannot make you cut down your beautiful tree, but he could — in theory — take you to court and ask a judge to give him permission to cut down the tree if he can prove that it, or its roots, is interfering with or could reasonably cause damage to his property.

Brian M. Douglas, an attorney in Atlanta, Ga., writes: “First, the homeowner cannot trespass onto their neighbor’s property or cut anything beyond their property line. Second, the homeowner’s actions should not lead to permanent damage to the tree. If a homeowner trims branches, cuts tree roots, or treats part of the tree with a chemical and this damages or kills the tree, then the homeowner can be held liable.”

“‘If there are branches hanging over his property, he may have the right to trim them back, especially if they were interfering with his view or causing other obstructions.’”

Surprisingly, if a tree falls onto a neighbor’s property in Georgia, it’s the owner of the property where the tree fell and not the owner of the property with the tree who bears the financial responsibility in most cases, unless the tree was diseased or dead and clearly presented a risk of falling. In your case, it may be wise to consult an arborist to write a report on the tree and the risks to your neighbor’s property. That could cost about $250 to $400.

“If your neighbor’s tree falls onto your yard, the first step is to make sure the area is safe,” Douglas adds. “Trees can often pull power lines down with them, and trees are also conductors of electricity. So it’s important to make sure that there are no downed power lines or live wires. Your second step should be to take photos. A picture can show whether the tree had visible signs of disease or decay.”

The good news is that your neighbor has spoken to you. If there are branches hanging over his property, he may have the right to trim them back, especially if they are interfering with his view or causing other obstructions. Before he does that, however, he should speak to the local housing association to make sure he is not running afoul of any local ordinances.

So what should you say to him? “The tree is healthy and strong, has been here for 20 years and provides shade and privacy. What are your specific concerns? Perhaps an arborist can address them. I’m sorry you feel like the tree is interfering with your property, but cutting down such a beautiful tree is not an option.”

Be firm, cordial, stick to the facts, and neither you nor neighbor should cross any lines — in this case, property lines. Surprisingly, if a tree falls onto a neighbor’s property in Georgia, it’s the owner of the property where the tree fell and not the owner of the property with the tree who bears the financial responsibility in most cases. MarketWatch illustration

Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas. 

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The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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Illegal cutting threatens Nigerian forest

OMO FOREST RESERVE, Nigeria — Roaring chain saws sent trees crashing to the ground, and bare-chested men hacked away at the branches beside a muddy road. Others heaved logs onto a truck, where they were tied in place with wire.

The work was similar on the other side of the road, with a timber-laden truck coughing dark plumes of smoke as it pulled away. This was miles into the conservation zone of Omo Forest Reserve in southern Nigeria, a protected area where logging is prohibited because it’s home to threatened species like African elephants, pangolins and white-throated monkeys. But forest rangers, seeing the impunity, were hesitant to act.

“We see people we arrested and turned over to the government back in the forest, and they get emboldened,” ranger Sunday Abiodun told The Associated Press during a recent trip to the reserve.

Conservationists say the outer region of Omo Forest Reserve, where logging is allowed, is already heavily deforested. As trees become scarce, loggers are heading deep into the 212-square-mile conservation area, which is also under threat from uncontrolled cocoa farming and poaching.

Conservationists and rangers blame the government for not enforcing environmental regulations or adequately replanting trees, impeding Nigeria’s pledge under the Paris climate agreement to maintain places like forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

The government of Nigeria’s southwestern Ogun state, which owns the reserve, denied failing to enforce regulations. In a statement, it said it’s replanting more trees than are being cut down.

The forest’s gatekeepers and those processing the wood both dispute that assertion, insisting trees are disappearing.

Sawmillers get annual permits from the government to cut down trees until their designated area is completely deforested. Then they can apply for a new section. They say the permit fee of $2,645 is intended to cover the government’s costs to replace trees but that this rarely occurs.

“The government is not replanting,” said Owolabi Oguntimehin, a sawmiller in Ijebu, a nearby town that has over 50 sawmill companies relying on the reserve. “It is not our responsibility to replant because the government collects the fee from us.”

Besides problems with replanting, authorities don’t enforce tree removal standards, even when loggers get permits, according to forest guards, who are employed by the state government.

Joseph Olaonipekun, a guard, said officials from Ogun state’s forestry department used to mark trees that could be cut and ensured “strict” enforcement to prevent others from being removed. But that’s no longer done, he said.

“By implementing selective logging, the adverse effects on the biodiversity of an area can be minimized while also providing the opportunity for young trees to continue growing,” Nigerian ecologist Babajide Agboola said. “This method allows for a more sustainable approach to logging and forest management.”

Trees such as Cordia wood, mahogany and gmelina are disappearing from the forest’s periphery, according to both sawmillers and reserve gatekeepers.

“There has to be massive reforestation so that the conservation zone will not be dismantled,” Agboola said.

But forest rangers hired by the nonprofit Nigerian Conservation Foundation, which is the government’s partner in managing the conservation zone, have found it a challenge to protect against illegal logging in off-limits areas.

They say loggers harvesting trees in the conservation zone brag about bypassing regulations by paying off government officials.

“We want the government to support us in preserving the forest,” ranger Johnson Adejayin said. He echoed his colleagues in calling for strict enforcement and sanctions, “so that the loggers do not come back to continue their illegal acts and boast that with money they can avoid punishment.”

The Nigerian economy, Africa’s largest, heavily relies on agriculture, forestry and other land uses. These industries, which are responsible for 25% of Nigeria’s greenhouse gas emissions, provide jobs for the majority of people in agrarian communities around the reserve.

As a result, there is debate about the political will to enforce environmental sustainability when livelihoods are at stake.

That factor should be considered, said Wale Adedayo, chairman of the Ijebu East local government area where a significant part of the forest is located. He advocates for a reduction of the conservation zone to give more land to locals to farm and log.

But he also acknowledges that “there is a lot of deforestation” that should be reversed to ensure Nigeria’s contribution to fighting climate change.

For its part, the state government said “it is incorrect” to blame the pressure to make a living “when loggers illegally find their way into the conservation area to steal parts of the conserved trees.”

Adedayo said logging in protected areas “is not possible without the connivance of the civil servants.”

The government’s forest guards have seen it first hand.

“There is too much corruption in this forest caused by greed and poverty,” Olaonipekun said. “When we say, ‘Don’t go there,’ some go through higher authorities to defy us, and we are helpless.”

The government, meanwhile, has delayed formally declaring the conservation area a wildlife sanctuary to protect it from threats like logging, farming and poaching, said Emmanuel Olabode, who manages the Nigerian Conservation Foundation’s wildlife conservation project in the forest.

The foundation’s rangers are focused on nearly 6.5 square kilometers of strictly protected land where elephants are believed to live and has been designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

“It is left to the government to enforce the regulations,” said Olabode, who supervises the foundation’s rangers.

Loggers even have resorted to violence to ensure their timber supply. Olabode recounted when assailants with assault rifles attacked a ranger patrol base in 2021, and loggers just kept cutting trees.

“Our rangers escaped with injuries, and we notified the authorities, but nothing was done, and we have not gone back there due to security concerns,” Olabode said, adding that the area is now unprotected.

The government says it plans to employ the military and police to combat illegal operators. It urges loggers who follow the rules to “fight their members who are into illegalities.”


Illegal logging thrives in Mexico City’s forest-covered boroughs, as locals strive to plant trees

MEXICO CITY — It’s a strange scene: in the forest-covered mountains of Mexico City — which most people outside Mexico don’t know exist — a brigade of farmers and forest rangers plant inches-high pine saplings in a recently cut stand of trees, even as the sound of chainsaws can be heard nearby.

Illegal logging has taken a huge toll in recent years on the forest-covered southern half of the city of 9 million inhabitants.

“They have finished off the forest,” Alfredo Gutiérrez, 43, said with sadness.

The extent of the devastation is astonishing. Just a year ago, “it was always dark, even if the sun was shining, because of all the trees that were here,” Gutiérrez said of the grove near his town of San Miguel Topilejo — on the edge of the encroaching urban sprawl.

While most people associate Mexico City with traffic jams and polluted air, actually about one-half of the city’s territory is rural, almost all of it in the southern boroughs of Milpa Alta and Tlalpan. About 20% are protected nature areas, like the mountains covered with pine and fir forests that adjoin the neighboring state of Morelos.

Those trees guarantee the recharge of aquifers that supply nearly 20 million people living in the city — and its suburbs. They also help clean the polluted air of the city and serve to contain high temperatures.

Why the illegal tree cutting has gotten so bad so fast is a matter of debate.

Local farm communities — many of whose members are paid as park rangers or soil conservation workers by the city government — think that organized crime gangs have moved into the illegal logging business.

It would not be a far stretch: Such gangs have long used the rural communities on the city’s edge to set up safehouses to hold kidnapping victims and its forests as dumping ground for the bodies of their victims.

Some of the villagers suggest the federal government’s crackdown on the sale of contraband gasoline and diesel stolen from government pipelines may also play a role, saying those who used to make a living selling fuel at roadside stands may now have turned to logging.

Mexico City authorities say they have identified criminal groups behind illegal logging, and in the past few months they have struck back, mounting operations involving hundreds of police officers and soldiers who raided clandestine sawmills in the mountains.

The city also sponsors reforestation efforts, but it is a race against time. Many of the tiny saplings won’t survive, and it would take decades to replace the majestic mature forests being cut.

In 2010, forests covered about 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) of the city’s total area of 370,000 acres (150,000 hectares), according to the activist group Global Forest Watch.

The group says the city lost 121 acres (49 hectares) of forest in 2022 — as much as in all of the four previous years together.

The problem is particularly acute in San Miguel Topilejo, which — because it has forests and is crossed by highways — makes it an attractive place for gangs to cut logs and move them to sawmills.

Pablo Amezcua, a natural resources engineer who works in San Miguel Topilejo, said that before 2020, only about 500 acres (200 hectares) had been affected by logging. Amezcua says that by mid-2023, a total of about 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) had been fully or partially cut.

Combating illegal loggers is a Sisyphean task.

According to data from the country’s attorney general for environmental protection, there have been 122 illegal logging complaints since 2013 in Mexico City, with more than half of those so far in 2023.

On a recent day, a group of forest rangers and volunteers set out on a reforestation mission in trucks from San Miguel Topilejo, going down narrow dirt tracks in the forest that are barely wide enough for the small trucks to pass.

They were escorted by soldiers and armed officers of the National Guard.

At the wheel of one of the trucks, a 24-year-old looked nervously from side to side as he piloted the vehicle. Like many of the rangers interviewed for this story, he asked not be named citing security reasons.

He said that when he passed the same spot two days before, there were trees where now there are felled branches and heaps of pine boughs, which could be dangerous fuel in the next forest fire season.

Riding next to him is a 58-year-old ranger who says he was shot in his abdomen by illegal loggers he tried to stop in November. A year before he says he was forced to flee his community after his family received threats.

Sadly, his situation is not unusual. Mexico is the world’s deadliest place for environmental and land defense activists, according to a 2022 report by the nongovernmental group Global Witness. Mexico saw 54 activists killed in 2021, the highest number in the world.

The fact the forests have survived is itself a feat.

As Mexico City’s population exploded between the 1950s and 1970s, urban sprawl crept steadily up the forested mountain slopes on the city’s southern boroughs. All kinds of logging had already been prohibited but some believe the prohibition fueled illegality.

Marina Robles, the head of Mexico City’s environment department, said the causes behind illegal logging are many, from real estate interests to organized crime.

For starters, organized crime gangs that were once content to use the forests as a hide-out and body-dumping ground, now want to control every activity, licit and illicit, that occurs on what they consider “their” turf. That includes illegal logging.

A couple of months ago, local residents — left to their fate against the gangs — protested by blocking highways leading out of the forest.

In response, authorities started the raids in June, with the help of 500 soldiers.

By early August, acting Mayor Martí Batres said authorities have identified al least five organized criminal logging groups in the city and had seized 32 lumber yards and 28 illegal sawmills within city limits. A dozen more sites were found in the neighboring state of Morelos.

Most were semi-portable, fly-by-night operations.

“They find a place that has the right conditions, they set up the sawmills, cut down trees, all very rapidly, from one day to the next; they start milling the logs and then pack up the sawmill,” Batres said.

He hopes to pass tougher penalties for illegal logging but, at present, it is hard to even arrest illegal loggers, who have attacked rangers and even soldiers, at one point dousing an army patrol with gasoline.

In return, some local residents set fire to logging trucks.

But it is an unequal battle.

“They have high-powered rifles,” said the ranger who was wounded in November. “These criminals completely out-gun us.”

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