The oldest trees on Princeton’s campus are the two American sycamores on the front lawn of Maclean House. Tall and strong, with mottled gray bark that sloughs off like a scaly skin to reveal a bone-white interior, their trunks grow straight and smooth over neighboring rooftops and erupt into a canopy of wild, crooked branches. Leaves bigger than an outstretched hand scatter across the sidewalk, coating it with tiles of green, yellow and brown. These trees are older than the country that gives them their name, and you would need the help of a friend or two to fit your arms all the way around their massive trunks. Towering over Nassau Street, they have been standing guard next to the University’s front gates since 1765, when they were planted by Princeton’s fifth president, Reverend Samuel Finley, to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. These trees have stood through a lot of history in their two and a half centuries outside the president’s residence. When President Finley died in 1766, an auction for the slaves who lived and worked in his home was held on the front lawn beside the two sycamores, just saplings at the time. In a photo of Maclean house dated to 1920, ten years after Woodrow Wilson left the University presidency, you can recognize the trees like you would the familiar faces of your grandparents in an old photo album. Their bark is a smoother brown and their canopies fuller, not yet whittled away by the passage of time. Nearly a century later, the trees find their way again into Princeton history in a photo of Titus Kaphar, who poses ankle-deep in sycamore leaves next to his art installation for the Princeton and Slavery project, displayed on the front of Maclean House until last December.

Trees have become a beloved feature of Princeton’s campus over the past century. When Beatrix Farrand became the University’s first landscape architect in 1912, she oversaw the arboricultural shaping of campus, inspecting every tree and bush on campus several times a year, and gave instructions for their upkeep. Farrand’s legacy lives on through Princeton’s greenhouses and nursery, which were purchased at her request in 1935 and still cultivate most of what the grounds crew plants on campus. Outside of agricultural universities, Princeton is one of only a few campuses to own such a growing operation. Now, Facilities conducts plantings and landscape maintenance, and ran on a budget of over $330 million in 2016. Princeton’s trees also get a lot of attention on University websites and have been featured in several articles published by the Office of Communications and the Princeton Alumni Weekly. “The Princeton University campus might be viewed as a vast arboretum—a carefully planned garden that, with its mix of exotic imports and native species, would never be duplicated in nature,” reads the first sentence of a book published by the Office of Communications. The book takes curious readers on a walking tour of campus, pointing out especially fine specimens like the “Stamp Act Sycamores” on the lawn of Maclean House that serve as living markers of Princeton’s history.

Even amid new construction projects on an expanding campus, Facilities takes advantage of its vast budget to protect exceptional trees like those listed on the tour. During the 2010 construction of Frick Chemistry Laboratory, the grounds crew intervened to preserve a European beech tree near the back of the site of the new building. The enormous tree erupts out of the ground in four separate trunks, sprouting upward into a massive crown of deep orange. Lower to the ground than the sycamores on Nassau Street, the beech’s crown extends more outward than upward—taking into account all of its branches, it appears wider than it is tall. Scars of removed limbs poke out near the base of its trunk, evidence of attentive groundskeepers’ work; the circle of bare soil trapped under the shadow of the tree’s canopy is littered with coppery brown leaves, shiny and folded up like miniature waffle cones. Just before sunset, the very peak of the canopy—so high it’s barely visible from the ground—lights up like a bonfire as shimmery leaves catch the last few rays of slanting orange sunlight.  

Facilities takes majestic trees like this one under its broad, well-endowed wings when they’re in trouble—to the University, they’re worth fighting for. Although the beech might have been shoved back into a corner behind the new lab building, the grounds crew was careful to protect its roots during construction. Using a tool called an air spade, they were able to blow old soil off of the tree’s roots with highly pressurized air and replace it with fluffier, nutrient-rich soil to help the tree survive the compaction of the construction process. This kind of treatment is within Facilities’ power to provide, with its hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriations and full legal authority over the trees on campus. Trees in the surrounding town are much more vulnerable.

In the town of Princeton, municipal trees are under the jurisdiction of the Shade Tree Commission, a group created by the town and governed by state statute to oversee the legal and physical protection of its trees. But unlike the University’s grounds crew, which has exclusive authority over any tree on campus, the Shade Tree Commission is tasked with overseeing the town’s canopy, which extends over the private property of over thirty thousand Princeton residents. Sometimes, homeowners cherish their trees: Janet Stern, a member of the Shade Tree Commission, is often approached by people who wonder why their neighbors’ trees are coming down—do they not need Commission approval? “People don’t know,” said Stern, “and they’re horrified. Why are all the trees coming down?”

Despite the concerns some Princeton residents have for trees in town, they are, in fact, coming down. Stern estimated that Princeton’s loss of canopy, or tree cover, is as high as fifty percent each year and is not fully replaced. Town arborist Lorraine Konopka, who makes decisions about which trees can be removed, had in 2017 already issued 546 removal permits by November. At that time the previous year, it was only 420.

This chronic loss of trees is stemmed only by the regulations in the Princeton Tree and Shrub Ordinance, a document created by the Commission and then enacted into law by Princeton Council. It outlines which trees can be legally removed and which require a permit; this depends on the tree’s condition, size, and location, but the basic intention of the ordinance is to prevent people from cutting down big, healthy trees that contribute to the town’s ecosystem and arboretum-like environment. According to the ordinance, any deciduous tree with a Diameter at Breast Height (or DBH, measured from a point four and a half feet above the base of the tree) of eight inches or more requires a permit before removal, followed by replacement with a tree at least two and a half inches in diameter. Homeowners who refuse to comply, even if they’re unaware of the rule, are subject to fines. These specifications apply to ordinary deciduous trees, though, and different rules apply to evergreen, ornamental, and specimen trees. According to the ordinance, evergreens have foliage that remains green and functional all year; ornamental trees are smaller species that grow to a maximum height of twenty-five feet. Specimen trees are the big ones—so big, in fact, that they may be recognized in a table on the New Jersey Environmental Protection Agency website. Candidate trees are listed with the names of their owners and reporters; they are assigned point values and a designation of “Champion” or “Runner Up.” (Princeton Township is home to five of these champion trees and one runner up—pecan, magnolia, redwood, Pawlonia, Norway spruce, and black oak.)

Despite the extensive protections trees are guaranteed under the ordinance, regulation of anything on private property is a difficult task: homeowners generally expect that once they buy a house, the property is theirs to curate as they please. Unless homeowners, real estate agents, and tree removal companies are aware of the ordinance, trees in town are vulnerable to being cut down as residents make changes to their properties. Trees are often felled during construction projects, usually for additions on private homes. Property values are high in Princeton—about four times higher than the average in the United States—and with new construction dominated by large homes, many buyers are priced out of the housing market. Current residents looking for a larger home face financial pressure to build on top of what they already have, and the trees on their property can stand in the way. Town arborist Lorraine Konopka is generally sympathetic to homeowners and their financial constraints and will grant permits for the removal of trees that interfere with home construction projects. To cover the loss, though, these trees must be replaced; if a property is too small following the new construction, the owner must pay a tree replacement fee starting at $400 for eight to seventeen-inch trees and increasing from there. Alternatively, the owner can agree to plant replacement trees on municipal property, for example, along the street in the municipal right-of-way.

But lenience for homeowners looking to protect or expand their property could be a dangerous precedent, cautioned Stern. People adopt a mindset akin to “manifest destiny” when they own land, believing that if they bought the property, they should be able to maintain it as they see fit, even if that means clearcutting their yard. Residents have asked to remove trees simply because they lean toward their houses, said Stern. “We cannot allow that kind of thinking to take over because we’ll lose everything!” she warned. Homeowners could, too: “You only have to think about driving into a Princeton with no trees to realize what it would do to property values.”

Residents have communicated their distaste for regulations on private property to Town Council members—and Council has to approve the ordinances of the Shade Tree Commission before they take effect. With this pressure on Council, said Stern, it’s difficult to get a really strict ordinance passed. Stern is actually an expert on tree ordinances across the state: she researched twenty comparable New Jersey towns while Princeton’s was being drafted in 2013, when the borough and township Shade Tree Commissions merged. There is hardly any observable trend across the state—there are almost as many types of ordinances as there are towns, said Stern—but the 2013 ordinance was certainly on the weaker end, mostly due to pressure on Council members from their constituents. “It didn’t have any teeth in it,” remembered Lily Krauss, current Vice Chair of the Commission. “I think you could cut down twenty percent of your trees in one year.” The document was weakened throughout the process of getting it approved, and in 2015, Mayor Liz Lempert called for a rewrite. The Commission was happy to oblige. The 2015 version increased the required size of replacement trees and instituted a multiplying replacement system: The larger the tree you cut down, the more small trees you have to plant to replace it.

But no matter how strong the ordinance becomes, there are barriers that prevent the Commission from enforcing it effectively. One problem is that people are not aware that the ordinance exists or how it applies to them: Stern and Krauss both recalled cases where people cut down their trees and were fined by the town arborist, but expected the fine to be waived because they had not understood the process of getting a tree removal permit. This practice of cutting down trees first and dealing with legal questions only retroactively causes even more problems for the Commission, since the trees are already gone by the time the issue comes to their attention. The arborist, in consultation with the Commission, then has to design an appropriate replacement plan and follow up with the homeowner to make sure they carry it out; this can include communicating with the plant nursery to make sure the homeowner purchases new trees and asking for a guarantee that the new trees will survive their first few years.

Another challenge of enforcing the ordinance comes from its ambiguity around whose behavior it regulates, the homeowner’s or the tree removal company’s. Ultimately, Stern said, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to know the ordinance and go through the permit process. Tree removal companies are not technically at fault if they cut down a tree without a permit, but the best ones will have done their research so their clients avoid fines. Woodwinds Associates, a Princeton-based tree service company, works directly with the town arborist to process clients’ permit applications, which is typical of higher-end companies. Mom-and-pop companies, on the other hand, might not have the same awareness of the Commission’s process, making their clients more vulnerable to fines from the Commission.

The Shade Tree Commission’s small budget and limited staff also weaken the power of the ordinance. While the University’s chain of command for grounds management includes a director, manager, assistant manager, and separate crews for grounds maintenance and landscaping, Princeton town arborist Lorraine Konopka personally oversees all of the trees in town, which extends over a much larger area than the University. The Commission has a database that stores information about every municipal tree in town, but it is perpetually lacking updates and there are not enough Commission members to fix this problem. The Commission also operates on a fraction of the Facilities budget: everything in the Shade Tree bank account comes from appropriations from the Public Works Department and income from tree removal fines, which currently total just over $47,000.

As long as homeowners can decide to cut down their trees and deal with the consequences later, the Shade Tree Commission has little actual control over tree removal in town, and the life of a town tree is far riskier than the comparatively utopian existence of trees on campus. But in reality, trees on campus aren’t perfectly safe, either. Although Facilities has both the budget and the authority to perform great feats of tree preservation—and often does—they also have the power to take trees down to make room for new construction as campus expands. And since University property is outside the jurisdiction of the Shade Tree Commission, the ordinance does not apply to campus trees, so Facilities doesn’t need a permit to remove them and is not fined for ordinance violations. The University makes renovations just like homeowners in town, and replaces trees with construction of all types, not just residential.

Between Peyton and Fine halls, three enormous sheets of metal stand on their curved edges, snaking across the paved surface that connects the two buildings. It’s a Richard Serra sculpture called “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” constructed in 2000. “Like many of Serra’s larger pieces, the viewer is meant to walk through it, experiencing the art and its surroundings together,” reads a description of the piece on the University’s website. Before the installation of the piece, the paved region was home to the largest Chinese toon tree on the East Coast—it must have been over ninety feet tall in order to compete with another huge specimen at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Chinese toon, a rare member of the mahogany family that can survive the cold temperatures of the East Coast, becomes a spectacle of pink in the spring, fading to green in summer heat—but for Serra’s piece, it had to go.

This was not an isolated incident: Four years later, a red oak tree, centuries old, became another casualty of progress when it died during the construction of Whitman College. Over time, some of the largest trees of their type in New Jersey have died on Princeton’s campus, and this trend will surely continue as the University adds a seventh residential college, the construction of which was announced in April 2017.

At the Shade Tree Commission meeting in October, Ray DeVoe leaned forward over his folded hands, elbows up on the conference table. He has pure white hair and a trim mustache, but moves with a steady, youthful earnestness.

   This was the first meeting of his five-year term on the Shade Tree Commission—he walked into the conference room a few minutes late and took a seat at the end of the table. The room in Monument Hall, a ten-minute walk down Nassau Street from campus, looked like it was last updated in the eighties; the corner ceiling light never stopped blinking and the drab brown carpet clashed with the wood-paneled walls. Ray walked in wearing cargo pants, white sneakers, and a thin orange sweater, peering at the Commission through wire-rimmed glasses. He set a Heineken beer box in the corner.

“I actually have a fun sort of, uh, challenge, if you’ll indulge me for about a minute and a half,” Ray proposed, smiling as he stood up slowly from the table. The women seated around the table murmured their assent. “These are from acorns, taken from my property,” he began, as he lifted the beer box up onto the table and revealed seventeen seedlings, which he took out of the box one by one. Each was just a few inches tall and planted inside a six-inch segment of a dead tree branch that had been hollowed out and filled with soil. The faces of the Commission members softened when they saw the tiny trees—fragile, but exuding vitality and promise. “I read that my term was going to be five years,” Ray continued, “and I know these are going to be a lot different in five years. So either now, plant it somewhere, or in the spring, plant it and take a picture, and we’ll see how it’s doing in five years!”

“This is a very unusual meeting,” a woman with frizzy gray hair mumbled, holding up her phone to take a picture of the seedlings, arranged on the table like an infant forest. Another woman, examining her tree, tenderly inspected a single leaf and mused to herself, “Are they chestnut oaks?” There was no response.

These seventeen trees were tiny and vulnerable, but in good hands. In the care of public servants who speak for the trees, their future seems certain: they will survive the five years, planted lovingly on a lawn somewhere in town and nurtured by a homeowner who cares. They likely won’t be replaced by an art installation, but by a new addition? Not out of the question. For trees on campus and in town, longevity cannot be legislated; only the lucky trees survive.