Carving ‘autographs’ into tree bark causes damage, should be avoided

Almost 20 years ago, a couple etched a heart into the side of a tree along a path in Wolters Woods Park. In 2008, “T.W.” left a mark carved into the bark of a tree in Sanctuary Woods Park.

The carvings that deface nature in Laketown Township parks don’t go away and concern naturalists and artists alike who would prefer hikers leave no trace behind in the township’s six parks.

Impact of carving

“Bark is the first line of protection against harmful invaders,” said Sarah Irvin, naturalist at the Outdoor Discovery Center Network, 4214 56th St. Laketown Township partners with the group that leads programs in the parks such as hikes and invasive species control.

The carving usually doesn’t kill the tree but it can disrupt vital layers just below the bark, Irvin explained.

“Xylem and phloem allow for the transfer of water, sugar and nutrients throughout the tree, from roots to leaves and back. Disruptions in the connectivity of the xylem and the phloem prevents the tree from sending resources where they are needed and can lead to the death of branches,” she said. “In extreme cases, if the carvings disrupt a straight line around a tree, the carvings girdle the tree, killing the entire tree.”

The destruction of beech trees in the state is a major concern because of beech bark disease caused by an insect that feeds on the bark, allowing neonectria fungus to enter the tree. This fungus kills the wood, blocking the flow of sap, and typically kills the tree within three to six years after initial infestation.

“Carving trees eases the entry of these insects and the subsequent fungus, as well as the myriad of other wood-damaging organisms, accelerating the progression of damage,” Irvin said.

Because forest trees are linked together underground, diseases can also spread from one carved-on tree to others that may not have been directly damaged, according to Marcia Perry, a sculptor who works with trees that have already fallen. She is also a member of the Laketown Township Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals. During discussions on land development, Perry advocates for native species and tree preservation.

“Beech trees are especially vulnerable because their smooth, pale skin does not develop the hard, protective furrows of most hardwood trees that shield the soft inner flesh that comprises the raceways for food and water to circulate through the tree,” she said.

Outdoor Discovery Center Network Naturalist Jennifer LaForest talks about the impact of cutting into tree bark during a hike at Sanctuary Woods Park, 4749 66th St., on April 8, 2022.
A tree in Wolters Woods Park, 6281 147th Ave., is marked by carvings.
A tree in Sanctuary Woods Park, 4749 66th St., has carvings in its bark.
Alternatives to carving

The Outdoor Discovery Center discourages carving into trees.

Laketown Township has an ordinance – Sec. 22-74 — making defacing or destroying property including a “shade tree belonging to the township or located in the public places of the township” a violation subject to fines.

“Public parks are for everyone to enjoy and appreciate with minimal intrusion of human-dominant influences including damage to the plants and animals that make the magic of those natural places,” said Perry. “Wounding trees hurts everybody by degrading the forest and the park experience. The impulse to ‘autograph’ nature is a very selfish one when it results in the loss of an essential and valuable part of that natural world.”

Instead of etching into a tree, Perry suggests arranging twigs or stones to spell out a name, drawing in sand or painting with water on a rock. And taking photographs.

“So rather than vandalize a magnificent thriving tree by carving into it, why not memorialize its contributions to the forest community by taking time to sketch or photograph or write about it? Or better yet,” Perry said, “gather up some beechnuts and start growing some beech babies for the future.”