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Tending to tree damage requires expert touch

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The initial buzz of chainsaws has died to a lesser roar, but there is still a lot of tree work to be done in West Virginia after the series of storms that recently passed through the Mountain State.

Bob Hannah, urban forestry coordinator for the state Division of Forestry in Farmington, warns homeowners to do their homework before hiring a tree service.

"The big thing to check on is that they are dealing with a reputable company with insurance. For treatment, they can't use just anybody with a chainsaw topping these trees. That will exacerbate these problems," Hannah said.

"If it is a large oak or maple, it is worth spending a few hundred dollars as opposed to having someone come in and mutilate the tree. Anyone that's really concerned about their trees should get an expert."

The best thing homeowners can do, according to Hannah, is to find a qualified expert who is a certified arborist through the International Society of Arboriculture (which is online at www.isa-arbor.com).

Certified arborists pass a rigorous exam that covers topics as broad-ranging as tree biology, fertilization, electrical safety, cabling and bracing, insects, diseases, tree identification and more. Additionally, continuing education is necessary to continue certification.

"It just shows they are a professional," Hannah said. He added that many large tree care companies have certified arborists on staff. Also, many of the experts listed as "not for hire" on the website will consult with homeowners and suggest other professionals to do the work.

Charleston resident Charles Woody, a certified arborist listed on the International Society of Arboriculture website, is a consulting forester who works in aboriculture as well. 

"It's really tricky right now, and I think the number one issue is to evaluate hazardous conditions," Woody said. "The storms ripped out a lot of limbs, and many are just hanging there." Woody agreed with Hannah that tending to the dangerous situations must be top priority.

"If they notice any heaving of the roots, on the uphill side of the lean, that's an obvious sign right there that there will be trouble down the road," Woody said. Some trees will survive, if the roots have not heaved, but the windblown appearance will probably persist for a long time.

Hannah said the problem with conifers is they are typically shallow rooted, so many toppled during the recent storms.

Woody said one important thing to note about how trees act is that they are naturally found in a forest setting.

"It's a community; they're offered more protection from the wind, from storms." Take away that protection and plant a solo tree in the front yard, and it must compensate for not having "neighbors."

"Open grown trees account for that by not growing as tall, and having more taper so their tops aren't as heavy," Woody explained. "If you are going to develop a lot, and have a stand of poplar trees on it, and you select one poplar tree out of the group to save, it's going to be more prone to wind throw without its companions."

Trees with co-dominant trunks (trunks of similar diameter) account for the majority of tree failures in storms. The branch union (crotch) is structurally weak and prone to breakage as the trunks grow.

"Co-dominant trunks have a very weak union, and that increases the potential for failure," Woody said. If one of the trunks has broken during the storm, it is likely that the whole tree will die.

"They tend not to survive. It's going to be very difficult for that tree to compartmentalize that wound; it's going to get rot in there," Woody said. If you prune a tree correctly, they can compartmentalize the wound and heal correctly, but losing a co-dominant trunk is a difficult wound from which a tree can recover.

"Maples are bad for the co-dominant stems," he added.

Woody stresses preventative maintenance to prevent future tree damage.

"A lot of times you'll see these trees break, it's because of rot and decay. I watch trees all the time -- that's my deal," Woody said. "I don't drive certain places in high winds. Two or three of them I've been watching came down in this storm.

"A big contributing factor to a tree failing is the health and integrity of your trees. You have to promote health, vigor. I recommend mulching your trees to provide essential nutrients such as nitrogen. Don't lay it too thick, you'll promote top rooting."

That said, Woody added that 90 percent of the fine fibrous roots of a tree are located in the upper 12 inches of soil.

To see how much area to mulch under a tree, drive around the neighborhood and observe the size of the root balls on trees that have uprooted. That's the size of the area that should be mulched.

Woody pointed to another factor in why some "healthy looking" trees fell and others didn't.

"A big thing that's happening, that may be the answer to why this tree fell and this one didn't, is Armillaria root rot, a natural occurring pathogen," Woody said. The fungus is infecting stressed trees weakened by insects or climate stresses throughout the United States. 

Hannah said smaller trees that were bent by the wind can be straightened in hope of salvage.

"Big trees didn't bend too much, because if they did bend a lot, they broke," he said. "If the tree is still fairly straight, it is probably not as big a concern. It will be on a case-by-case basis, and each valuable tree needs to be evaluated by an arborist.

"Major trunk damage, large cavities, cracks, probably not going to be good news for the tree," Hannah said.

Hannah stressed the value of trees in the urban landscape.

"There's a formula that is used by ISA that starts with the species. Each species is worth a percentage of 100. They then go through various steps: location, size of tree, overall health and vigor, and come up with a value. It's more art than science," Hannah said. But Hannah noted that a tree could be valued in the tens of thousands of dollars.

For more information about urban and community forestry and related programs, contact Bob Hannah at 304-825-6983 or Robert.L.Hannah@wv.gov.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.

 


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