The St. Louis Chainsaw Massacre

The St. Louis Chainsaw Massacre

When a tree falls in the city does anyone hear the cash register ring?

This story first appeared in the Journal of Decomposition in 2012.

By Bill Newmann


The hit jobs are carried out with military-like precision in broad daylight on city streets almost every day.  As a result, thousands of St. Louis’ oldest residents have disappeared over time, targeted for disposal without warning.  Moreover, the hatchet men in these coordinated attacks operate with immunity under a blanket law that provides authority to act with no public input.

The victims are mature hardwood trees that line city streets.  The perp is the Forestry Division of the St. Louis Parks Department. The city’s urban foresters adhere to a model shared nationally by the commercial timber industry, a world in which trees are planted, grown, and harvested in a perpetual cycle.  The strips of publicly-owned land between sidewalks and curbs are akin to a plantation, and the trees, an agricultural commodity.  Removing the mature tree canopy that shields the city is an unavoidable part of this municipal agribusiness.  Adding insult to injury, a private company profits from this taxpayer-subsidized scheme.

Street trees have become a cash crop.

In mid-2009, the Forestry Division, the local plantation overseer, put out a request for bids to privatize its composting operation.  Within two weeks of issuing the notice, St. Louis Composting, Inc. secured the contract.  St. Louis Composting, an Illinois corporation that sells a variety of compost and mulch products, was founded in 1992, the same year yard waste was banned from Missouri landfills.

Patrick T. Geraty, the owner of St. Louis Composting, began by subcontracting his services at then-Peerless Park Landfill in West St. Louis County.  Now the flagship location, it is one of five similar facilities operated by the company in the Bi-State area.  In the last twenty years, Geraty’s business has grown exponentially.  St. Louis Composting now claims to be the region’s largest composter, processing more than one-third of St. Louis County’s yard waste.  In 2009, it generated $12 million in revenue, according to the St. Louis Business Journal.

The city leases the private firm its Hall Street facility for a mere $12,000. The company reciprocates by forking over a tiny fraction of its output to the city — 5,000 cubic yards of mulch per year.  In the proposed budget for 2010, Forestry earmarks $250,000 for its outsourced composting operation. The city contract also sets a specific amount that St. Louis Composting receives for each cubic yard of municipal waste it accepts. Tabulating the total that is raked in is tricky. But there’s one accounting certainty to this murky arrangement: The city pay out is not the only way the corporation makes money.  In addition to charging the city, St. Louis Composting accepts material for a fee from private customers. Moreover, after processing the raw materials it is paid to accept, St. Louis Composting then charges up to $39 per cubic yard for its finished products.

Months before St. Louis Composting submitted its bid, the city issued a street tree study.  It was conducted by a private research firm, the Davey Resource Group, and was paid for by a hefty grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation.  Rooted in national urban forestry standards, the analysis focuses on cost-benefit comparisons and property values, not tree health.

The report concludes, “St. Louis has an aging tree population skewed towards mature trees.” Then in an understated manner, the study metes out its death sentence by decreeing that the culling of the city’s oldest hardwoods is an economic imperative: “An uneven age distribution, heavily weighted in younger trees, is an age structure that provides an even flow of benefits, even if major losses in canopy or species occur.”

The mass execution order, which is buried deep in the report, is masked by forestry jargon that trumpets “sustainability,” and other green buzzwords. The lethal ends are also camouflaged under the rubric of public safety, a catchall phrase used to justify the city lumberjacks’ deeds. In that regard, the Davey report recommends Forestry enforce an “aggressive risk-tree removal program.”

Sketchy guidelines such as these provide Forestry a cover under which it can condemn any tree.  Furthermore, due to the city’s fiscal problems, Forestry is under increasing pressure to perform to validate its annually allotted tree-maintenance budget of more than $2.2million.

The final nail in the coffin is a city ordinance enacted in 2010 that yields sole authority over all street trees to Forestry Commissioner Greg Hayes and his crew. Together they represent the judge and jury and there is no public appeals process. The law vests the Forestry boss with “police-power” to control the street-tree plantation. Violators who disobey the edict face stiff fines and imprisonment.

St. Louis Composting’s contract expires August 31.  According to the terms of the agreement, if it intends to request an extension, the company is required to provide written notice to St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green by May 31.  A spokesman for the comptroller writes in an e-mail dated June 6, “I’ve been informed that nothing has been received as of yet.”

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