January 14

Wild weather feeds homeowners’ anxiety over trees

The taller the tree, the more it’s feared, but health matters more than size, arborists say.

By Diana Marszalek
The Associated Press

Nancy Owens takes no chances with trees since a windstorm propelled a large one through the roof of her Long Island, N.Y., home 15 or so years ago.

click image to enlarge

A SavATree arborist uses a resistograph to detect tree decay, which can help determine a tree’s stability.

The Associated Press/SavATree

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Pruning can improve a tree’s overall health and structure, arborists say.

The Associated Press/SavATree

So when a neighbor whose property abuts Owens’ Maine summer home said he believed two of her tall pines looked suspiciously askew – and leaning toward his house – Owens wasted no time having them removed.

“They didn’t look dead to us. But what do I know?” Owens says. “I was born and raised in Manhattan. I know nothing about trees except they can come through your roof.”

Owens, who “cries every time I have to take down a tree,” is one of a number of homeowners who reluctantly opt to be safe rather than sorry by removing trees – even when it may not be necessary.

Arborist Dane Buell, who oversees tree care for the company SavATree, says that in the last few years people call him “all the time” asking to remove healthy trees. Most, he said, are afraid of the uptick in wild weather that has sent trees crashing down on homes, cars and power lines around the country.

“People see bad things that happen with trees, and the natural response is we should cut them all down,” says Buell.

Joe Lamb, a Berkeley, Calif., arborist, sees the phenomenon too. He cautions that there’s no connection between a tree’s size and the hazard it poses.

“It is very common for people to be afraid of trees simply because they are large,” Lamb says.

The health of the tree is more important than its size, Buell says, and he recommends that property owners focus on managing their trees. That includes annual health checks, pruning, and precautionary steps such as adding support and even lightning protection when necessary.

Certified arborists can identify problems – insect infestation, nutritional deficiencies and disease – in the early stages “90 some percent of the time,” he says. Remediation is often fairly simple, too, he says.

“Trees fail often because these conditions are not identified early. They don’t fail because they are tall,” Buell says.

And while no one can prevent an extreme storm from toppling even the healthiest of trees, he says, the benefits of having trees usually far outweigh the risks they pose.

For example, trees around a home can increase its value up to 15 percent, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. Properly placed trees around buildings can also reduce air conditioning needs by up to 30 percent, and save 20 percent to 50 percent in energy used for heating, according to the USDA Forest Service.

Homeowners aren’t the only ones who have stepped up precautions in recent years. Bob McGee, a spokesman for Con Edison, which provides power to New York City and neighboring Westchester County, says the utility company has improved its year-round tree-trimming since the recent rash of harsh storms.

“This typically engenders either a community outpouring of thankfulness or scorn, depending on whether there’s been a recent storm,” McGee says. “We know that taking this action helps keep service reliable. But if nothing is going on and we trim the trees, people will hit the roof.”

Lamb – who says he gets a rush of tree-removal requests from homeowners after storms – says he finds many people are willing to try remedial measures like thinning out a tree and removing dead branches once they learn more about them.

For many others, however, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

“If someone says that a tree doesn’t look right, I don’t argue with that,” Owens says. “If they say it, I pay whatever it is.”

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