A former employee of one of the country's largest outdoor advertising companies has blown the whistle on his ex-bosses, saying the company routinely and illegally poisoned and chopped down trees that obscured views of their billboards.
Robert J. Barnhart, a former crew chief for Lamar Advertising Co. in Tallahassee, Fla., says he used to sneak onto private property early in the morning armed with a machete and a bottle of herbicide. He would chop at the roots or trunks of trees, pour on the herbicide — and run. MSNBC reports that Barnhart's boss called such an operation "a hit and run."
Barnhart, who is not speaking directly to the press, says he was fired in August 2011 after refusing to continue the tree poisonings. He is suing Lamar Advertising under the Florida Private Whistleblower's Act. Barnhart's charges against Lamar are under investigation. No charges have been filed.
A second Lamar employee has also come forward admitting to poisoning trees on the company's behalf.
Lamar has previously been cited for violations in Ohio and Connecticut. The company says both incidents were mistakes.
A Lamar spokesperson released a statement, saying "cutting of trees or poisoning of trees without the required permits would be contrary to company policy."
Another Florida company, Bill Salter Outdoor Advertising, has been cited for illegal tree killings. The company reportedly cleared more than 2,000 trees from public land. Salter had a permit for the cutting spree, but a grand jury found that the permits were "in flagrant violation of the law" because the company was not required to reimburse the state for the value of the trees, which was estimated at between $1 and $4 million.
In discussing the cases, a spokesperson for the Outdoor Advertisers Association of America told Forbes, "Our code is clear. We oppose illegal vegetation removal."
Other cases are creating headlines around the country. Heineken — still reeling from the incorrect charges that it sponsored illegal dog fights — faces criticism that two trees in New York City's SoHo district were topped to improve the view of a Heineken billboard. Heineken says the action was taken by a third party. A spokesperson told the media "we find it to be reprehensible" and said the company will replace the trees at the company's expense.
And in North Carolina, state engineers have approved hundreds of requests to remove trees that Adams Outdoor Advertising says are blocking the view of its billboards. A new law in the state gives billboard companies the right to clear vegetation for hundreds of feet around their advertisements. Charlotte's city arborist, Don McSween, told WSOC that the city had argued against the trees' removal, saying, "we're obviously disappointed."