Tree Removal Panic

No one wants a tree falling on their house. As we all know, Hurricane Sandy brought down thousands of trees throughout our region, causing extensive damage to property. Many people are now looking at the trees surrounding their homes and wondering which will be the next to go. At a recent meeting of Almstead arborists we found ourselves discussing a new phenomenon: Tree Removal Panic.

Source: Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Source: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Over the last few months, we’ve had many calls to remove healthy trees. Sometimes the tree’s owner is concerned about the potential damage of the tree falling, other times neighbors feel threatened by a tree and are lobbying for removal. How do you decide how risky a tree is?

The first thing to remember when you look at your trees is: these trees already survived Sandy. Hurricane winds provided a stress test for trees which many failed; the ones that survived have proven their resilience. Nevertheless, it’s best not to take the health of a tree for granted, especially a large tree that could do damage if it fails. An arborist can evaluate the condition of your trees by inspecting them for signs of disease or decay; we call this a “Tree Risk Assessment.”   Trees don’t need to be completely disease-free in order to be stable; it’s important to evaluate the amount of damage inside the tree as well as the location of any weakness. In some situations, we actually “look inside” the tree by using an instrument called a Resistograph. By boring tiny holes into the trunk, we get a map of the amount of decay inside. We are able to evaluate the level of risk associated with the tree based on this knowledge.

Armed with the knowledge gained from an arborist, the decision to keep or remove a tree is ultimately yours. It’s a question of how much risk you are willing to take. No arborist will guarantee a tree against failure, any more than a doctor will guarantee that your health will remain perfect. We each have to determine the level of risk we’re comfortable with, and weigh the pros and cons. Trees serve many purposes: they offer shade and keep our homes cool in summer; they provide habitats for songbirds and animals; they screen us from neighbors or eyesores; and they are immensely beautiful. They also protect us in many ways. Though a tree may fall on your roof in a hurricane, it may also shelter your home from your neighbor’s falling tree – or his airborne lawn chair. It is up to each of us to decide the cost/benefit balance for keeping a tree.

It’s also important to remember that falling branches are more common that falling trees. Judicious pruning can substantially reduce the likelihood of branch failure. Finally, be aware that many communities have local ordinances that prohibit removing healthy trees from private property. If your tree is at risk of failure, an arborist can help document the reason for removal and get the permit from your local government.

I sometimes ask my clients, “Can you experience the experience?”  In other words, if a tree were to fall on your house, would it be unendurable or worth the risk? How large is the tree? What would it fall on? A huge tree poised over your child’s bedroom is a different situation than one that might land on your garage.

As in other areas of our lives, we each have a comfort zone with regard to risk. For most of us, the small risk associated with being surrounded by healthy trees is outweighed by the joy they bring us.