DETROIT, MI — Mitt Romney loves Michigan. He loves the cars. He loves the people. He loves the…tree size? So he keeps telling us at least.
“This feels good, being back in Michigan,” he said in an economic speech on Friday. “You know, the trees are the right height.” It was the second time in the week that the Michigan-born Massachusetts governor praised the relative growth of the state’s flora as one of his favorite features.
But are they the right height? And is it a really weird thing to bring up? TPM set out to discover the truth of the matter (take that, Politifact) and found an intense horticultural debate that crosses traditional partisan lines.
Let’s start with the most fundamental question: how tall are they? We asked David Neumann, a silviculturist with the state Department of Natural Resources’ forest division, to run down the basics.
“The hardwoods can range from 50 feet at maturity to about 100 to 120 feet,” he said. “Most hardwood forests are right around 70 to 80 feet tall.”
Romney’s deep emotional attachment to arboreal matters may explain why he’s spent so much time in Massachusetts, where he was a student, businessman, and governor, and New Hampshire, where he currently has a home. According to Neumann, Michigan’s trees are “fairly similar” to the New England region: “The trees are probably not that much different in height out there.”
Indeed a look at the street trees of Boston, courtesy of the city parks and recreation department, puts the peak height of most species around 60-70 feet. The real regional distinction tree-wise is from the forests way out west: California’s gigantic redwoods and the Pacific Northwest’s lush rainforests, for example.
Still, Michiganders are intensely divided as to whether Michigan’s tree height is fair game.
“It’s bizarre,” state Democratic chair Mark Brewer told TPM when asked about Romney’s line “Nobody in Michigan talks about Michigan that way.”
Portia Coates, 24, a waitress in Warren, Michigan was just confused when we asked her about Romney’s line.
“I have never heard anyone say that in my life,” she said. “I’m all about ‘Go green,’ but who cares how tall the trees are?”
But even among some of Romney’s political opponents in the state, there’s some shared affection for the loftiness of Michigan vegetation. Believe it or not, the Detroit area used to be known as the City of Trees. Well, before Dutch elm disease, overdevelopment, and a host of other maladies wiped them out, at least.
State Sen. Arlan Meekhoff (R), a Rick Santorum supporter, has no objections to the tree talk even as he believes Romney has failed to connect with Michigan residents in general.
“I think what he was pointing out is there was a period of time when the people who were taking care of the land didn’t take very good care of it,” Meekhoff said. “So a lot of the trees got lumbered, the land was cleared for agriculture. So a lot of the forest growth that’s happened has all happened in one period of time. That’s what I read into it.”
He added: “I hope I’m correct.”
According to Frank Telewski, professor of botany at Michigan State, Meekhoff is indeed onto something.
“Most of our forests were cut in the 19th century in the lumber boom and much of our timber went to rebuild Chicago after the great fire,” he said. “So our forests in some areas are still recovering as growth can be very slow on some of the deep glacial sands, especially in the northern part of ‘the mitt.’”
The most prominent defender of Romney’s botanic tastes this week is about as far away on the political spectrum as you can get. Flint, Michigan’s Michael Moore proudly stood up for his hometown trees — and flipped off neighboring states’ — in an appearance on MSNBC.
“He does have that right,” Moore said of Romney. “The trees in Michigan are just the right height. In Wisconsin, they go way — you can’t even see the top. In Ohio just a bunch of shrubbery.”
Given the available science and the various arguments before us, TPM rates Romney’s claim that the stature of Michigan’s greenery is good and proper “true enough.” If you care about that kind of thing, at least.
Benjy Sarlin reported from Washington.
Composite picture contains an image from benchart/ Shutterstock