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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.

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Increasingly, the free-market libertarian politics that thrive in the region and champion a property owner's rights over local regulation have clashed with the notion of almost sacred "viewsheds" that are considered part of the public commons.

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Near Monterey, Calif., the local chapter of the Sierra Club went to the defense of the county that had intervened to halt vanity logging being carried out by landowner who desired a more spectacular view. The trees were being cut on land where the county held a "scenic easement."

The homeowner appealed the decision, claiming his actions "did not materially alter the landscape," but he was overruled.

Two years ago, a government planning agency in Nevada brought legal action against residents along Lake Tahoe who cut trees - in some cases, just the tops - to improve their view.

Vanity cutting has long been used by real estate speculators as a tool to improve marketability and to push up the value of their land. Officials with the Nevada Department of State Lands said the only way to slow the trend is through vigilant law enforcement and by levying fines that exceed the value achieved through tree felling. In one very public case, landowners were threatened with a fine of $5,000 per day for every limb they removed.

"It is quite serious, because unless we really deal with this, it is going to continue to be worthwhile for people to do this," Rex Harold of the state Lands Department told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Clearing trees, in guise of fire safety

Vanity logging is only the latest example of cultural conflict caused by newcomers seeking to increase their aesthetic pleasure. In valleys ranging from the Rockies to coastal California, an unspoken agreement has long existed among agrarians that to erect homes on top of the most prominent scenic knolls was verboten.

Yet more and more such provincial customs are being swept away. Conservationists worry that new federal forest initiatives, carried out by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, may be accelerating the phenomenon of vanity logging under the guise of creating defensible spaces to keep wildfire at bay. In the past, strict covenants in many residential subdivisions lying next to national and state forests have forbidden logging of old trees, but some property owners are citing wildfire danger as the reason for opening up a visual path to the mountains.

Homeowners in hundreds of Western communities are fireproofing their property, and critics worry that the very forests that concealed development may disappear to create more visual blight. After the Green Knoll wildfire roared across the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson Hole and charred trees in the backyard of Crescent H subdivision residents, some property owners complained. One hired loggers to cut down the blackened trees and replant a grove of aspens.

Unfortunately, the resident claimed his hired help unknowingly logged a portion of the national forest. Federal authorities are still investigating the incident. "At some point you cross a threshold: The ecology and wildlife are diminished, "viewsheds" are impinged upon, and the recreational experience changes dramatically," says Mr. Robotham. "Basically, it becomes exurbia."