'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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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