Another 70 trees were killed in Cambridge, and for what?

Northern Tree Service fells trees on May 4th. (Photo: Charles Teague)

The MBTA had the Northern Tree Service cut down at least 70 public trees in an Alewife flood zone on May 4. Northern mobilized a massive fleet of workers and machinery to fell trees on a weekend when authorities are closed, knowing from its nearly century of experience that permits are required in wetland buffer zones. Unlike other property owners in Cambridge, the MBTA does not require permission from the city to cut down trees. One would have hoped that Northern, since it also works for the city, would have informed the MBTA of our tree canopy collapse and called for restraint.

This was an urban wildlife park across from the Alewife MBTA garage. There are parking structures on each side and it flows into a canal through which raw sewage flows into Alewife Brook. It is a depression that is flooded with raw sewage during heavy rains, preventing the sewage from flowing onto streets, sidewalks and paths, as well as the adjacent basement of the Healthpeak Properties parking garage. The raw sewage then either flows out of the canal or is absorbed into the soil and naturally disinfected by the trees and other plants.

Now, chips from felled trees reduce wastewater retention and increase the likelihood of raw sewage flowing into the Healthpeak garage. Trees no longer obscure the view of raw sewage. Not only did all of the equipment burn fossil fuels to get here, felling and chopping entire trees, but all of the carbon stored in the trees is now going back into our atmosphere.

The trees purified and cooled the air for this industrial neighborhood and for all the people who use Alewife Station, many of whom have no choice but to use public transportation. It will take decades to replace these public health services. The city wrote, “The MBTA cleared the area to provide clear sightlines.” Unfortunately, there is an alternative narrative.

A general contractor building a restaurant around the corner said there was a homeless encampment by the sewer last year. When asked, he claimed there were complaints. The adjacent, heavily fortified Healthpeak workshop likely serves out-of-towners who commute by car to six-figure tech jobs. Perhaps they were offended when they saw the blue tarps as they looked through the row of parked cars, through the heavily barred openings and through the once dense screen of trees and leaves.

Of course, a homeless camp is not pleasant. But last year’s camp would have been hidden in this industrial area contaminated with raw sewage. If there was an incident, the police could have been called. The owners of the massive complexes, the corporate tenants, and the better-paid employees could all have funded relief programs. They could have built a wall and hired armed guards. Or did nothing because there was no camp this year.

Instead, the MBTA has likely spent tens of thousands of our tax dollars committing environmental outrages, perhaps just to drive the homeless out of yet another haven.

But alleged narratives don’t matter. Crucially, trees are still falling across Cambridge. Nearly a fifth of the tree canopy has disappeared in a decade and the city is still not taking its own canopy preservation plan seriously. They need to remind city officials that it’s not just the homeless who benefit from cooling large, mature trees: it’s also the very young, the very old, the infirm, and those who can’t afford an air-conditioned car to get around.

Email your city councilors to say we are losing too many trees and the city council needs to stop cutting down trees for unnecessary projects.

Finally, the MBTA must commit to Cambridge’s Urban Forest Master Plan, which states: “Our first priority must be to remove fewer trees unnecessarily and to extend the lifespan of our trees through improved management practices.”

Charles Teague lives in North Cambridge and is a long-time tree advocate.