Outdoor Ad Industry Accused of Poisoning Trees to Make Way for Billboards

Criminal probe begins in Florida

Breaking the law is unsustainable as a long-term marketing strategy. To wit: the improper or illegal defoliation of stretches of highway designed to give billboards maximum visibility. The controversy is branching out, driven by press coverage—like FairWarning's exhaustive and compelling exposé—of a Florida whistleblower lawsuit brought by Robert Barnhart, who claims he was canned by Lamar Advertising after he stopped obeying orders to poison roadside trees. (Guess he turned over a new leaf.) Chris Oaks, Barnhart's former supervisor, corroborated the story in a deposition, claiming he too poisoned trees for Lamar. The firm has declined to discuss specifics, but its chief spokesman, Hal Kilshaw, maintains that "cutting of trees or poisoning of trees without the required permits would be contrary to company policy," and that Lamar is "doing the right thing almost all the time, almost everywhere." A criminal investigation has begun. Separately, a Florida grand jury ruled that officials violated the law by issuing permits allowing Bill Salter Outdoor Advertising to cut down 2,000 trees. (The state is negotiating with the firm for repayment.) In both cases, it seems to me that this negative publicity far outweighs any benefit of gaining a few seconds of billboard exposure by removing the trees in the first place. Plus, green activists will be seeing red, and it's easy to envision vandalism attacks against billboards. In the past, trees fell in such fashion, and no one heard. Today, thanks to a more agile media and eco-aware public, the sound of their destruction really carries—perhaps all the way to the jury room.

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