A crime by the highway: Poisoning trees to make billboards easier to see

April 26, 2012

By Myron Levin, Lilly Fowler and Stuart Silverstein

Robert J. Barnhart was a crew chief for a billboard company, and a soldier in a war on trees.

Trees were the enemy if they spoiled the view of a billboard. On days of an attack, Barnhart, 27, would arrive by dawn at Lamar Advertising Co. in Tallahassee, Fla. After removing the magnetic Lamar logo from a company truck, he would set forth with a machete, a hospital mask and a container of what he described as a “pretty gnarly” herbicide.

It was all about being fast: Hack into the roots or base of the tree, douse the wound with herbicide, and get out of there. The Lamar executive who gave the orders, said Barnhart, called it “a hit and run.”

Barnhart’s account, detailed in court papers and in statements to investigators, is the focus of a criminal investigation. It also is the basis for a whistleblower suit in which Barnhart, who through his lawyer declined to be interviewed, maintains that he was fired because he would not keep poisoning trees. His claims are supported by sworn testimony from Barnhart’s former supervisor, Chris Oaks, who admitted that he, too, had illegally poisoned trees before Barnhart took over in 2009 as poisoner-in-chief.

As long as there have been billboards, trees have been getting in the way. And billboard companies have been removing them — sometimes legally, sometimes not. News archives are replete with accounts of mysterious tree disappearances near billboard sites. Usually, no one gets caught, due to lack of evidence or to officials failing to aggressively pursue those responsible.

Fewer trees means more viewing time for motorists, and more money for billboard operators. A 500- foot clearance in front of a sign creates more than five seconds of viewing time for a motorist going 60 mph.

It’s uncertain if the Tallahassee tree-poisonings were isolated, or reflect a pattern at Lamar. The Baton Rouge, La., company has nearly 150,000 billboards, more than any other U.S. outdoor advertising firm.

Barnhart and Oaks said they acted under orders from Lamar’s former regional manager, Myron A. “Chip” LaBorde, who ran company operations in Florida and Georgia and was past president of the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association LaBorde died of pancreatic cancer last summer.

Hal Kilshaw, a Lamar vice president and chief spokesman, declined to discuss the criminal investigation, but said “cutting of trees or poisoning of trees without the required permits would be contrary to company policy.”


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