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'Vanity logging': Breaking laws in search of a view

As more Americans move to the woods, they cut down neighbors' trees - sometimes at night - to widen the vistas.

By Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Todd WilkinsonCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2004


In this famously beautiful Wyoming valley, where world leaders come to relax in trophy homes behind big picture windows, a mountain view of the rugged Tetons can do far more than inspire.

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In fact, those awe-inspiring views of "God's country" sometimes cause overzealous landowners to break the law - by firing up the chain saw to topple trees that block the grandiosity. Talk to real estate agents and they are hardly squeamish about telling prospective buyers and sellers that a commanding vantage point can increase property values by millions.

"There are three things most coveted in Jackson Hole," says Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, a land protection organization. "The first is a Teton view, the second is a streamside home parcel, and the third is a lot adjacent to public land."

While Mr. Camenzind notes that home owners can do little to move the location of rivers or the boundary lines of a national forest or park, some have taken extreme measures to get a better view.

From the Tetons to the Blue Ridge Mountains, the phenomenon of felling trees for personal enrichment and financial gain is known as "vanity logging." In the East, impenetrable hardwood forests are, to some, just annoying walls that stand guard against the perfect outlook - and higher property values.

Out West, where vast stretches of open space yield dramatic views that are both commercially lucrative and coveted by local communities, development pressure has fueled social conflict. "More and more people are coming to the mountains to buy a little piece of the pretty," says Doug Robotham, director of the Trust for Public Lands in Denver. "They're finding that scenic values push up property values, and you can enhance those scenic values by opening up sightlines."

Vanity logging is hardly widespread. But land use experts say it's more common as Baby Boomers flock to mountain nests, changing culture, economies, and privacy attitudes. Often, logging comes after permission is denied, and clear-cutters move in under cover of darkness.

Case in point: In the well-to-do mountain hamlet of Highlands, N.C., near Whiteside Mountain - a slab of granite in the southernmost Appalachian highlands, a newcomer challenged local customs and understandings when he took matters - and a chain saw - into his own hands.

"There was this very nice house that was built in an area where it would have a great view of Whiteside Mountain - if only the neighbor's trees weren't there," says Martin Reidinger, a lawyer in Asheville.

So the owner - a wealthy Atlantan - made some calculations and came to a decision: Cut 'em anyway. After finding the acre's worth of his trees chopped down during a long walk through the woods, the neighbor sued - and won $40,000. But experts estimate that the Atlanta man still came out on top: He increased his property value by at least $100,000. "It happens fairly frequently," says Mr. Reidinger. "Sometimes the cutting is innocent, but other times I think it's very purposeful."

Cutting a view of the Tetons

Not long ago, two disputes arose in Jackson Hole's tony Crescent H Ranch subdivision along the southern end of the Teton Range. The issues seized community attention as they played out in the local newspaper. In one case, a homeowner enlisted loggers to fell two acres of trees on a neighbor's land in order to improve the mountain view. Spurring a public outcry, the instigator ultimately ended up paying a financial settlement with the Jackson Hole Land Trust, which held a conservation easement on the neighbor's tract.