In Dr. Seuss’ book, “The Lorax”, the “Once-ler” pursues his dreams of getting rich by cutting down trees to make Thneeds, without replanting or replenishing the trees. In so doing he awakens the Lorax, the guardian of the trees. The Lorax tells the Once-ler, “I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” But the Once-ler does not listen, and the business creates a wasteland.
The city of Canton, Michigan likes to pretend it’s the Lorax, requiring all residents to replace trees or pay into a tree fund for every tree they cut on their property. But it doesn’t really care about the trees. It cares about power, and trees are the means to getting more power.
Matt and Gary Percy have a sustainable business model with their plot of land in Canton. They weren’t cutting down publicly owned trees to make thneeds, but instead cutting old dead trees and clearing brush and trash on their own property to plant Christmas tree seedlings for a Christmas tree farm. The property was in an industrial area and had long been full of discarded trash, but the Percys sought to create a business that would soon make the property more beautiful and more valuable.
But the city of Canton came onto the scene like the furrow-browed, long-mustached Lorax. But instead of a speech about protecting the environment, Canton handed out fines. Canton demanded nearly $500,000 dollars from the Percys under a local ordinance that requires that private property owners pay the government when they remove their own trees from their own private property.
But Canton is not the Lorax. It doesn’t care about the trees. Indeed, Canton itself clear-cut trees around the same time without or paying into its tree-fund. Instead, like the Once-ler, Canton cares about money. The Percys could cut as much as they want, provided that they ask Canton’s permission and cut Canton a hefty check.
The Percys failed to do either, and so Canton came down with the full force of law. It even filed an emergency action in court to prevent the Percys from planting trees or taking actions to care for the seedlings they had already planted. Four years later, despite three separate court rulings finding that Canton’s tree ordinance is unconstitutional, Canton continues to push forward with its litigation against the Percys.
All the while, the plot sits empty, no trees or carols, wreaths or trimmings. No trees to be grown on this plot of land. Why? Because the Percys did not ask permission or pay what Canton wanted.
A lot of environmental law works this way. Under the Endangered Species Act, you can get a permit to take endangered species if you agree to give the government what it wants. A very pertinent example is our Seafreeze case. The government has issued a permit to Vineyard Wind to “take” (not directly to kill, but to harass the whales in their environment, feeding grounds, etc.) 10 North Atlantic Right Whales, one of the most endangered species on the planet. If the government really cared about protecting the environment or species, it would pay property owners to protect them. Instead, it’s another way to exert control.
Pretending to be the Lorax to get more money and power is neither constitutional nor American. And while we don’t claim to speak for the trees, we do seek to defend the right to own property, with trees or without them. In this case, the ability to use one’s own property would result in the business of planting and replanting trees. The Lorax might be happy about that.