AHHH!! What's Happening To Our Big Trees?!?!

I’m sure that’s been a major topic of conversation the past few weeks. As an arborist who loves big trees, I understand the sentiment. In hopes of dispelling rumors, let me get some answers straight from the horse’s mouth (my apologies).

Chris Perry, ISA Certified Arborist and Public Works Unit Manager was the City’s representative on the Tree Task Force I served on. He was an invaluable resource for us, and a tireless advocate for bigger trees and a larger, healthier, and more diverse tree canopy. For what it’s worth, I have a high degree of confidence in his stewardship of our tree canopy’s present and future. That being said, when I contacted him about trying to help citizens understand the what and why of tree removals, he responded in great detail. Here are some of his thoughts:

“I can assure you that all the trees that we will remove this year are in a serious state of decline and that the need and strategy to remove is well thought-out and measured. We do not remove healthy trees. We actually identify trees with structural defects that can be pruned to make safe and retain ecological services citywide on a much more consistent basis than removals. Last year we addressed over 40 trees with structural defects on Clifton Blvd alone to help prolong the life of certain trees.”

“We have had trees on Clifton literally explode and/or break apart from multiple canopy structural defects in sever storm events, yet the bottom 20-25 feet of the trunks had little or no decay present.”

The process of identifying “at risk” trees is complex; the only way of being relatively sure is to do an “autopsy” after the tree is cut down. Obviously, that’s not a good way to retain a sizable tree canopy. As an ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualified arborist, I understand the challenges. Chris is quite right when he says, “In regard to oak trees, the condition of a stump does not always tell the story of what was discovered or observed in the upper portion of the main leader, weak/rotting branch attachments or the canopy condition as a whole.” 

You might remember that 3 years ago, about 20 hazardous trees on Clifton were removed. Unfortunately, many of the trees on Clifton are nearing the end of their healthy life. In urban environments, trees simply do not live as long due to much harsher conditions. As a result, municipal arborists need to be proactive. Chris continues:

“We identify and keep an inventory of potential hazard trees and rank them accordingly for strategic removals each year to strike the proper balance of a safe, growing and much more diverse tree canopy along Clifton Blvd., and citywide as well.”

There are currently 123 large oaks on Clifton, and the City has an inventory of trees based on size, so they can keep an eye on the next generation of large trees in Lakewood. You will continue to see a few large at-risk trees removed each year by the City over the next few years due to identified defects and concerns, but no wholesale removals like we just witnessed.

15 of these newly vacant sites will be re-planted this spring. A few will have to wait until fall. A couple of the sites can’t be replanted due to utility conflicts.

Under Chris’ guidance, since 2013, all new Clifton trees are planted at least 5-feet off of center to allow more canopy space at maturity in relation to utility lines, rather than directly underneath as was done in the past.

“Please note that all the big trees along Clifton were already at their current height when the utility lines that you see today were installed in 1962, after Clifton was widened from a 4-lane road to a 6-lane road in the late 1950s. At that time the big trees were 'limbed up' to create space for the new power lines underneath the highest branches.”

We’ve all see the damage structurally unsound trees can do when storms role in. Due to Chris’ leadership, we will have a safer, healthier, and more diverse tree canopy in the coming years, and even decades. This may be a hard time to be a tree person in Lakewood, but our children, grandchildren, and future Lakewood residents may well look back on this time and commend us for our willingness to do what was necessary to maintain Lakewood as truly a City of Trees.

John Palmer is ISA Certified Arborist and a member of the Keep Lakewood Beautiful Tree Committee.

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Volume 11, Issue 7, Posted 7:10 AM, 04.01.2015