I wrote the following letter to my neighbors after a healthy 51 inch white oak was removed. I had inspected the tree, it was a 125 years old, no decay present, and outside the buildable area of the property. Using TRAQ, I gave it a moderate risk rating. Unfortunately, that rating was never officially recorded, although any tree rated moderate or higher may be removed in our community. It was removed to create room for detention for a renovation and because the owner felt it to be unsafe. After the removal someone chopped down their construction utility pole and placed a sign that said, "RIP." In response to the vandalism the owner wrote an email which slowly disintegrated into us vs. them mentality. The neighborhood has roughly 80% canopy coverage with some very large and old trees.
As others already have, I wish to welcome Joy and her family. Our new neighbor followed the laws of Decatur and legally removed the tree. I understand that trees are removed especially when they present a danger to human life and property. As part of my job, I condemn risky trees on a weekly basis. I have also removed a specimen tree in my own yard. This still does not appease the remorse I feel when an old tree is removed.
The Urban Forest of our neighborhood is special. I have written about it on several occasions over the years. It is a mature forest that gives us a glimpse of what the primeval forest once looked like before industrialization. While most rural forests reflect unabated logging and agriculture through the 20th century, the urban forests were often intentionally retained to provide shade and and give us a semblance of contact with nature.
Our homes reside within this forest. As our forest matures and we expand the footprints of our homes we increase the likelihood of a negative encounter. How do we balance the beauty of the forest of which the oldest trees provide the very character of what makes it special but at the same time provide the most risk?
Both trees and ourselves are natural systems that sometimes compete for resources. Our relationship with trees is both reciprocal and antagonistic. Perhaps our depth of emotion about trees is that we have evolved with them and they are rooted deep within our existence. They embody so much that we attribute to life and death. I have yet to meet a person that is indifferent about them and cannot recite a personal tree story, often from their childhood. While our opinions might differ they always provide the opportunity for common ground. That they evoke strong feelings does not surprise me, but it is my aspiration that they help us communicate and relate with one another as individuals, neighbors, and Americans.
I work as both a tree inspector, so I have the privilege to work with trees everyday. Many prefer not to think about the risk trees present while others can not stop thinking about it. After many years of being confronted with this dilemma, the international governing body of arborist developed TRAQ or tree risk assessment qualification. The risk rating of low, moderate, hight, very high is based on target and health of the tree incorporating much research. The amount of research in regards to tree structure, heath, and biology has grown in leaps and bounds over the last decade. Using the TRAQ system the home owners is referred to the "tree risk managers" and the arborist the "tree risk assessor." As the owner must ultimately live with the consequences of the risk whether it be low, moderate, high, or very high, the final decision is theirs to make. The "tree risk assessor" applies their knowledge and experience and any mitigation (pruning, cabling, mulching, etc.) that might mitigate the risk. While the system is not used by everyone and incorporates some subjectivity it is a useful tool for the homeowner to make an informed decision weighing the costs and benefits retaining/removing the tree. As you might guess, the service is not free but ultimately can give you peace of mind and save you the cost of removal.
It is important to not only measure a tree by its risk, but also understand trees for their many benefits many of which are not directly related to humans. For example, a native oak can support up to 523 species of caterpillars. A single clutch of Carolina Chickadees can consume up to 9,000 caterpillars in a 16 day period. It is also interesting to note that non-native species do not support nearly the level of ecosystem; as an example a Ginkgo will only support up to 5 caterpillar species in the Atlantic Region. Part of evolution is specialization, and it takes up to 1000s of years for a species to adapt to a food source that otherwise would be poisonous. Ginkgos have not been here long enough for caterpillars to adapt to its defenses. So retaining and planting native plants is not just about supporting that species, but also the biodiversity that has evolved around it for millions of years. Older trees also have more time to propagate a healthy biome. Last not all trees are equal, a white oak can have a life span up to 500 years, while a water oak is typically around 90 years.
In regards to the City of Decatur, it allows for residential properties to remove 3 trees within an 18 month period and any tree rated a moderate risk or higher. They also allow double credit for specimen trees, so if it has a tolerable risk to the tree risk manager (home owner, property manager, controlling authority), you will potentially have less to plant back to meet the canopy goal of 45%. As most specimen trees near homes will likely be a moderate risk, most any tree can be removed without penalty in the City of Decatur, although all tree removal requires a permit (can be completed online). If a land disturbance permit is being sought (do not need land disturbance permit to remove trees, typically just for new construction and renovations), they must comply to 45% canopy coverage. India Woodson, the City Arborist is working diligently towards making the ordinance work for as many people as possible. As with most new ordinances there are some flaws and confusing language. However, I respect the process by which it was composed and I think the City did an amazing job incorporating many different and emotional views. I hope to encourage the City to further encourage healthy specimen trees that have a potential remaining life span of at least 20 or more years.
We have an amazing mature urban forest in our neighborhood. It is a joy and a responsibility. A nice ending to the tree removal on Mt. Vernon is that the mulch from the tree will be spread in the Glenn Creek Nature Preserve, completing its cycle in a way we can all benefit. Perhaps other possible projects to help find common ground is continuing our NeighborWoods program where we plant young trees. I would also be interested in identifying the trees that are over 100 years old. You might be surprised, some of the biggest trees are not necessarily the oldest. If you would like to help us spread the mulch, maintain trails, and pull english ivy, in the Glenn Creek Nature Preserve please join us Saturday, December 13th at 9am.
Neil W Norton
ISA Certified Arborist, SO-4158A
ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualified