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Tree Law

Tree Law
Texas Tech University Forests Speaker Series, Spring 2021

Tree law covers a broad range of ideas from the public management of forest ecosystems to private management of trees in urban subdivisions. The philosophy of legal protection of trees is explored with the classic by Christopher Stone, “Do Trees Have Standing?” Unlike science, law is confined by jurisdictional boundaries, and sometimes plural legal systems overlap and conflict as in the traditional management of forests by the Karuk Tribe in California. These ideas converge in this panel as we explore the broad scope of “tree law.”

This panel discussion was hosted by Vickie Sutton of the Texas Tech School of Law. Dr. Sutton is Director of the Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy, the only center at a law school in the U.S. to focus solely on issues of law and biodefense, biosecurity and bioterrorism. She established the Law and Science Certificate Program with unanimous support of the faculty, and directs the JD/MS Program in Environmental Toxicology; Biotechnology; Agriculture and Applied Economics and the JD/MEng.


  • Trees are considered private property in the US legal system, leading to issues around liability, trespass, taxation, etc. There is little legal respect or standing for the tree itself.
  • Ecosystem services provided by trees often go unvalued - clean water, flood control, cooling, etc. Quantifying these could better represent tree benefits.
  • Perverse policies like tax laws in Houston incentivize cutting down urban forests when they should be preserved. Better state/federal regulation could help.
  • Indigenous stewardship practices see forests as interconnected communities rather than commodities. Their traditional ecological knowledge could inform sustainable management.
  • The Karuk tribe aims to revitalize indigenous burning practices to restore healthy fire regimes, protect communities from mega-fires, and preserve culture/food sources. For additional details, see the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan.
  • Barriers remain around permitting and liability with prescribed burning. Progress may come from sovereignty recognition and insurance issues.
  • Holistic systems thinking is needed across jurisdictions to properly value trees. This could come through education, new science like critical zones geology, and novel legal constructs like rights of nature.

Bill Tripp is Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Tribe. He is also Co-Chair of the Western Region Strategy for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, and serves in a participatory capacity across many collaborative discussions in the field of climate, fire, culture, and natural resource management/policy and on the ground action.

Keith Hirokawa is Professor of Law at Albany Law School. Professor Hirokawa's scholarship has explored convergences in ecology, ethics, economics, and law. Professor Hirokawa practiced land use and environmental law in Oregon and Washington and was heavily involved with community groups and nonprofit organizations. Professor Hirokawa studied philosophy and law at the University of Connecticut, where he earned his JD and MA degrees. He earned his LLM in Environmental and Natural Resources Law from Lewis & Clark Law School.

Blake Hudson is the Samuel T. Dell Professor of Law and the Co-director of the Environmental & Land Use Law Program, Univ. of Florida, Levin School of Law Professor Hudson’s recent research has focused on the intersection of land use law, policy, and planning with natural resource management, with particular emphasis on the role of forest management in combatting climate change and the implications of land development for long-term natural resource management. His research has also centered on the “commons” and the complicated role of private property rights and government institutions as solutions to commons dilemmas.