For Dave Fulson, protecting the trees of east Fort Worth goes beyond the benefits of improving air quality or flood control. Maintaining the area’s tree canopy keeps Fort Worth tied to its  rural past, he said.

“Trees are a rich part of the fabric of the John. T White neighborhood,” Fulson, a director of the neighborhood association, said. “We’ve got more 150-year-old post oaks than any other area of our city, and we have seen them devastated by developers, who disregarded the tree ordinance and paid pennies-on-the-dollar fines.” 

Fulson and his neighbors, who have protested the clear-cutting of trees by housing developers, are some of the most passionate advocates for changes to the city’s tree ordinance, including harsher penalties for violators. 

“It’s a matter of balancing the existing regulation that’s already on the books and giving it a little bit more teeth,” said Daniel Serralde, another John T. White neighborhood leader who calls himself the Lorax of Fort Worth. “We need bigger penalties or require the developer to install medium growth trees, not the little saplings that die off with the freezes we are starting to see.” 

The pleas of John T. White residents, and their City Council representative Gyna Bivens, may be answered in Fort Worth’s first urban forestry master plan. City officials hope implementing the plan will encourage developers to preserve more trees and increase Fort Worth’s tree canopy cover from 19% to 30% of the city. 

Last month, Fort Worth announced a partnership with the Texas Trees Foundation to assess current ordinances and make recommendations to address issues like air quality, urban heat, stormwater management and tree protection in areas like the eastern Cross Timbers, which covers a large portion of Bivens’ district in east Fort Worth. 

“The east side of Fort Worth has experienced instances of devastating tree loss, and it is absolutely incumbent upon us as City Council to ensure responsible development and look for every opportunity to enhance urban forest preservation,” Bivens, who serves as mayor pro tem, said in a statement. 

Fort Worth will contribute $50,000 from its tree fund, which come from fees and penalties paid by developers for violating Fort Worth’s current urban forestry ordinance. The Texas Trees Foundation will contribute a minimum of $250,000 from a variety of donors, including Atmos Energy, Wells Fargo and the Nicholas Martin Jr. Family Foundation. 

Sevanne Steiner, Fort Worth’s urban forestry planning manager, said the development services department will lead the project and coordinate with other city departments, especially parks, on the plan. 

“There has been an emphasis specifically on urban forestry in terms of private property development as opposed to urban forests on public lands,” she said. “We’ve seen several clear cuttings in previous years, and that has kind of turned the focus to private land and what that means for the urban forest.”

Large machineries cut down and shred trees at the Mockingbird Estate development, south of John T. White Rd and west of Williams Rd in John T. White neighborhood, in 2021. (Courtesy photo | Daniel Serralde)

Oak trees in communities are ‘not a luxury,’ planners say

Along with bringing funders to the city, the Texas Trees Foundation will leverage its experience helping Dallas officials craft their master plan, said Rachel McGregor, an urban forestry manager for the foundation. The foundation’s team also includes Cheri Cuellar, who left her job as a senior plan examiner for Fort Worth’s urban forestry department in January. 

To develop and enact an effective plan, McGregor said, community members and city officials must be educated about the importance of tree preservation, including its benefits for reducing extreme heat and increasing property values. 

There’s no expected time for completion, but following public forums in the fall and winter, city and foundation staff will begin drafting a version of the plan, McGregor said.

“A huge part of this is education, because (residents) can’t ask questions or express what they want if they don’t even understand what the subject matter is,” she said. “Not only residents, but lawmakers need to understand. We use terms like urban forestry, but people don’t even know what that is. It’s starting from those basic points of what trees do for you.” 

The foundation defines urban forestry as managing trees within a city by prioritizing ordinances, care, planting, equity and budgeting for those activities. Benefits of doing so range from cleaning the air, providing shade, lowering temperatures, providing wildlife habitat and reducing flooding. 

More people are beginning to refer to trees as “green infrastructure,” Cuellar said, which recognizes their importance as part of an urban center. 

“I think that helps to combat the perception that oak trees are nice, but they’re kind of a luxury,” Cuellar said. “They’re not a luxury – they’re essential particularly to stormwater management. As far as air quality goes, green vegetation is really all we have to clean the air. It’s the trees that remove pollutants.” 

The Lake Worth Indian Marker, located at Arrow S Park, is one of more than 50 heritage trees recognized by the city of Fort Worth. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Will potential tree ordinance changes ‘hinder’ development? 

While the idea to develop a master plan came up in late 2020, the process was stalled during the pandemic, Steiner said. With Denton and Dallas adopting their own plans and more community members speaking out about a desire for tree protections in Fort Worth, the city decided to move forward with the urban forestry plan last fall, she added. 

“I don’t think that it’s really coming from a place of concern,” Steiner said. “It is coming from a place of priority and focus … Our community stakeholders are saying: ‘We as a city also need a master plan specific to our urban forest so that we can really begin to tell the story of how important our urban forest is to the history of our city, as well as to our community.’”

For Fulson and other homeowners living near rapid development, the new planning effort stems directly from the actions of companies that cleared large plots of land for new homes. Several developers have told neighborhood representatives that it’s easier to cut down trees in bulk and pay the fine than try to preserve them, he said. 

Fulson is especially concerned when developers claim they cut down dying or useless trees, but neighbors recognize them as old-growth post oaks. 

“Citizens should have a right to see the trees that are marked for clearing,” he said. “They’re always sorry after the fact: ‘We told the crews not to take those trees down. Talk to the tree service.’ Well, the tree service works for you.”

Travis Clegg, a principal at Peloton Land Solutions and a board member of the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth, leads the city’s Development Advisory Committee, a city manager-appointed group that meets monthly to discuss making development more efficient in Fort Worth. 

Developers are often frustrated by the perception that they don’t care about trees, especially the companies that are often planting more trees than naturally existed in Fort Worth’s prairie land. 

“Any developer recognizes that trees are very important to their developments, whether it’s single-family or commercial,” Clegg said. “The idea of clear cutting is not always beneficial to what they’re trying to sell. Trees can also provide additional revenue.”

He foresees heavy involvement from developers concerned about how changes to the urban forestry ordinance, which he currently finds “reasonable,” could affect the permitting process or the ability to build in Fort Worth. 

“The Development Advisory Committee would like to be involved in those conversations to see: Are we doing things that’s really going to hurt or hinder development?” Clegg said. “Because we don’t want to completely knock development out of Fort Worth because of our rules, but there are some things we could do to make it a little more efficient and reasonable.”

What makes sense in east Fort Worth, which features heavily forested areas, may not work in southwest Fort Worth, which consists of prairie lands without many natural trees, Clegg said. The city will likely consider two different sets of criteria for development in those ecosystems, he added. 

For instance, if a 40% canopy preservation requirement were to apply to all parts of Fort Worth, a developer would have to go through a public hearing to remove the only two trees on a 1,000-acre development on prairie land, Clegg said.

“That doesn’t really seem efficient to me,” Clegg said. “However, it does make sense in the heavily treed parts of east Fort Worth to make sure we’re protecting and following the rules and regulations appropriately.” 

Tall trees line the street in the Oakhurst neighborhood in northeast Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Public forums planned for fall, winter

City staff and the Texas Trees Foundation plan to collect feedback from developers like Clegg and environmental advocates at several open forums this fall and winter. A schedule for public participation should be finalized by the end of August, according to the foundation. 

Don Wheeler, a landscape architect based in southwest Fort Worth, is accustomed to providing feedback on tree preservation to the city. He is a member of the city’s urban forestry advisory committee, originally formed in 2004 and recommissioned in 2020 with the goal of advising City Council members on possible regulations related to tree preservation. 

The committee, which was tasked with reviewing elements of Fort Worth’s existing tree ordinance, last met in February, Wheeler said. That meeting was sparsely attended, and he hasn’t heard anything from the city since. 

Natalie Foster, a spokesperson for Fort Worth’s development services department, said the committee had briefly paused meetings while city staff analyzed the questions and concerns brought by committee members. 

“Staff does plan on meeting with the committee in the near future,” Foster wrote by email. “And even though the committee will be meeting in the future, we still expect, to a certain degree, there to be some overlaps and parallels between the ordinance review, the master plan, and the committee.”

Steiner suspects the committee will remain involved in consulting with the urban forestry planning group on their recommendations. Wheeler already has a few suggestions, like allowing volunteers to remove smaller trees and replant them before they are cut down by developers, or requiring companies to work around existing trees when building utility lines.

Beyond developers, Fort Worth should also prioritize replacing the trees that have died in parks across the city, Wheeler said. He’s watched several trees die off at Kellis Park, which he frequently visits to pick up litter. 

“We lost several really good quality trees from the freeze two years ago, and that’s sort of disturbing that no one has really planted any trees here,” Wheeler said. “There’s probably other parks that have very few trees other than what was there when it was dedicated as a park.” 

For too long, community members were uninformed about developments planned in east Fort Worth, Fulson said. Those days are over, he added, and John T. White residents will show up at public meetings to protect the trees in the neighborhood. 

“We don’t count on anybody else to be our eyes and ears. We do that ourselves on the east side,” Fulson said. “We’ll be the ones standing on the table in the front row.”

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...