- People do not necessarily love trees; at least not unanimously and unequivocally.
- Liberalization of regulations was associated with canopy loss.
- 80% of tree canopy loss during the liberalization occurred on private property.
- Manual mapping is an easy and reliable method for capturing the liberalization’s effects.
- Valuation studies need to account for the diversity of views and be interpreted in a broad context.
Despite what numerous studies on the perceived importance and value of urban trees may suggest, urban trees are subject to endless debates and controversies. The problems span individuals’ reluctance to clean up leaves to broader discussions on what a ‘modern city’ should look like. To study these issues, we benefitted from a national-scale policy liberalization that involved a drastic change in regulations regarding the tree management in Poland. Between January and June 2017, private property owners were allowed to freely remove trees on their property (with few exceptions, e.g. nature monuments). This involved repealing the previous obligations to obtain permission to remove trees, any charges and fines that previously applied for removing trees, and the obligation to report removed trees. The change was introduced by a populist government and resulted in both the massive removal of trees but also broad public debate. Eventually, the previous obligations and system of charges were reintroduced, although the new charges were lower. To study the canopy cover loss resulting from this liberalization in the context of longer-time change, using satellite images from Google Earth, we manually mapped removed trees in selected urban quarters representing different types of urban structure in our case study city over a decade 2010–2019. The results show that the tree loss during the liberalization far exceeded the tree loss over all the other years during the decade, and that 80% of this loss occurred on private land. They also show that the level of tree removal returned to normal when the regulations were restored. We discuss these issues in the context of the broader debate on the value of trees and the related policy liberalization, and explore the potential reasons why landowners so enthusiastically seized the opportunity to remove trees. Finally, we suggest how to better protect urban trees.