Tree-Poisoning Case Reignites Billboard Industry Scandal

Workers for America's largest outdoor advertising company have confessed to illegally poisoning trees that obscure billboards in Florida, reigniting a long simmering scandal in the industry.
“We always cut trees illegal,” Robert Barnhart, a former employee at Lamar Advertising Co. in Tallahassee, told investigators from the Florida Department of Agriculture:
After a while I started actually riding around with my boss and he would show me trees he wanted poisoned. And, uh you know, he would tell me how to do it, you know, call it hit and run, machete at the roots and you pour poison, pesticides—we don’t know what is is, uh, you would put it in a plastic container and it would eat its way through the plastic container. I mean, it’s pretty gnarly stuff.”
Barnhardt is suing Lamar Advertising under the Florida Private Whistleblower's Act, contending he was fired after he refused to continue poisoning trees.
Barnhardt's account was verified in sworn testimony by his former supervisor, Chris Oaks, according to an investigative report by FairWarning, a nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues. Fairwarning's report appeared this morning on MSNBC's Open Channel, an open-source investigative reporting site.
The revelations come as 20 scenic organizations gather in Washington D.C. this afternoon "to fight for America's beauty," and honor Sen. Lamar Alexander, a longtime watchdog on the issue. While governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, Alexander introduced legislation to prohibit tree cutting, saying, “tourists come to Tennessee to see the scenery, not the billboards.”
At the gathering, the scenic organizations find themselves impassioned by the unfolding scandal implicating one of their historic targets.
"Scenic America commends the workers who have had the courage to tell the truth about poisoning of America's landscapes for corporate greed," Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, told me today. Scenic America has opposed outdoor advertisers for decades on the issue of tree removal. According to the organization's website:
There are no shades of gray here; this is simply an effort by the billboard industry to be allowed to destroy publicly owned trees for their private gain. That's the issue in its entirety. The billboard industry tries to obscure this by calling what they do "vegetation control." However, the truth is that the "vegetation" is not out of "control." What the industry is doing is cutting — in some cases clear-cutting — publicly owned trees for their own benefit.
Tracy called the latest revelations evidence of "the bastardization of Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act."
The outdoor advertising industry, meanwhile, sought to distance itself from the latest revelations:
"Our code is clear," Nicole Hayes, spokesman for the Outdoor Advertisers Association of America, told me this morning via email. "We oppose illegal vegetation removal."
OAAA's code argues that "Outdoor advertising signs depend on line of sight," and lists numerous benefits of tree removal, while stating that "The OAAA discourages vegetation control that is not in compliance with state and local laws and regulations."
But during a Government Accounting Office survey in 1983, 24 states reported 253 instances of illegal tree cutting near billboards (pdf).
Lamar Advertising spokesman Hal Kilshaw could not be reached by Forbes this morning, but he told that "cutting of trees or poisoning of trees without the required permits would be contrary to company policy." His statement echoes the company's response to Barnhardt's lawsuit.
According to FairWarning, Lamar has been in trouble before for illegal actions against trees:
In 2008, the state of Connecticut sued Lamar for removing trees along Interstate 84 when its permit only allowed trimming.
In 2009, an Ohio couple sued Lamar for cutting down 34 trees on their property that obscured views of a Lamar sign.

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