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After the storm

As thaw comes, owners must figure out what to do with trees damaged by ice

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent / March 5, 2009
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For several tense hours during December's devastating ice storm, the cracking tree limbs sounded like a battle in the woods.

"It was a horrifying night," recalled Al Futterman, land programs and outreach director for the Groton-based Nashua River Watershed Association. "Like gunshots and mortar fire."

Downed trees and utility poles made some roads impassable. Homes were damaged. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power, some for a week or longer. Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency.

Now with the days growing longer and New Englanders finally looking forward to spring, landowners are confronting the shocking damage left by the storm: trees with cracked limbs, torn bark, and decimated crowns.

The damage may be ugly and discouraging, but experts advise landowners to take a deep breath before taking action.

Trees are resilient; they have ways to recover from severe damage, said Jennifer Fish, forest stewardship coordinator for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. "It's tough to kill a tree, is the bottom line."

And she said that ice storms and other natural "disturbances" that inflict short-term havoc on individual trees also provide long-reaching ecological benefits to the forest.

Fish and Charles Burnham, forest health program supervisor who has worked 41 years for the department, offered advice for coping with ice-damaged trees at a recent seminar hosted by the Nashua River Watershed Association.

Fish said New England forests face several types of natural disturbances:

  • Windstorms and lightning are common but generally affect a small number of trees in a limited area.
  • Ice storms can damage trees over hundreds of miles, but decades can pass between major storms.
  • Hurricanes do the most damage over the widest area, though devastating storms this far north are very rare.
  • In each of these events, tree damage is only considered a disaster because it affects people, she said. Disturbances are natural and helpful for forests. Openings created by fallen trees allow new plants to grow.

    "Forests have many layers and many areas of different ages," said Fish.

    The destruction caused by ice last December was widespread in Massachusetts, especially along Route 2 west of I-495, and throughout northern Worcester County. The damage was reminiscent of the Great Ice Storm of 1998, the granddaddy of ice storms, which devastated millions of trees in northern New England and in Canada. That storm's swathe of destruction became a research laboratory; foresters have studied the lingering effects of the '98 ice storm for years. Their research provides a template for managing tree damage, said Burnham.

    A damage study in Ontario after the 1998 storm found that some species were more susceptible to ice than others. Butternut, poplar, silver maple, and black cherry trees suffered the highest levels of damage, according to a report by the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, a not-for-profit forest management organization. Less damage was seen among sugar maple, beech, white pine, gray birch, red oak, and elm. The lowest amounts of damage were observed in white ash, spruce, and hemlock.

    Foresters in Canada were surprised that many trees that sustained heavy damage to their crowns, the part of the tree that carries the foliage, were able to survive.

    "All is not lost," said Burnham. "The tree will come back."

    Trees with up to 50-percent crown damage generally recover in three to five years, he said. Even trees that had suffered up to 75 percent crown damage in the 1998 ice storm managed to fight back to health. If the damage covers more than 75 percent, a tree probably will die, he said.

    Trees respond to wounds by "compartmentalizing" the injury, said Burnham. "They seal it off so the decay can't spread. That has a big impact on the quality of the lumber that would come out of the tree. If it gets decay inside, then it's not worth much at all," and extensive decay "can cause structural defects that can cause a tree to fail."

    Canadian foresters also found that well-maintained trees survived better than those that had not received regular pruning.

    The Eastern Ontario Model Forest recommends waiting until the next growing season to see how a damaged tree responds before making a decision to cut it down. Get advice from an expert arborist, and remember that trees are resilient.

    To help a damaged ornamental tree, Burnham recommends removing broken branches with proper arboricultural cuts, just outside the bulging branch collar where the limb meets the trunk of the tree. "By cutting it off properly, the tree will be able to heal over better and thus wall off any decay or fungi that comes in," he said. "In the spring you might want to fertilize."

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