Big trees versus big sky


Photo by Dan Barton.

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, there’s been a sudden increase in business for local arborists. Erik Richards of Limber Tree Service reported an inundation of calls from people who want advice on which trees around their houses pose a threat.

Vern Rist, who works to save trees, is taking down trees around his own home. He took the top off a large one two years ago, and during Hurricane Irene it came down, narrowly missing his home. “It was just sheer luck that I’d taken off enough of it,” he said. “I’m a tree hugger, but I’m taking down anything big near my house.”

Rist is, in layman’s terms, a tree doctor and owner of Healthy Plants in Saugerties. His business these days is mostly with trees. He doesn’t advertise but you can find him online at


How do you figure out what poses a threat? An easy answer is: look up. Any large tree that blocks out the sky around your house is a potential problem.

My own story, which you may have read about, involved a massive white pine, our West Hurley roof and a branch which nearly reached my head as I worked in my office. It wasn’t long before we were noticing other trees which were leaning toward us in a threatening fashion.

“I want them down!”

I surprised myself. I like trees. I particularly loved the big maple beside the drive. But it was just too big and we were just too fragile. It had to go.

Erik Richards said the amount of post-storm cleanup work has been overwhelming. He’s detected a shift in attitudes. “Storm damage prevention seems to be the new buzzword,” he said. “Everyone wants to take them down now before they fall on their houses. People used to be willing to wait for an accident, then deal with it. But with two hurricanes in two years, people are starting to clear trees away from their house in preparation for the next storm.”

Trees in trouble

Once Richards is on site, he points out other major issues that many property owners aren’t aware of. On our property, he pointed at a massive tree in the woods with a mottled trunk.

“That’s an ash,” he said, “and it’s already infested with the emerald ash borer. It’s a goner.”

Looking around, we found another ash, and beside it a hemlock.

“The hemlocks are in trouble, too,” said Richards. “The wooly adelgid is the big secret no one seems to know. But tree experts are calling it the game-changer. It could potentially wipe out hemlocks just like Dutch elm disease wiped out those trees.”

The wooly adelgid, he explained, is an insect that has been around for years. But warmer winters have led it to thrive and pick up the pace of its attack.

He said it is possible to save some ash trees and hemlocks, but it requires an ongoing commitment. “You can inject an ash with insecticide which kills the emerald ash borer or prevents an infestation,” he said. “You can also do a soil drench each year. The injection protects the tree for two or three years. There’s another treatment than you can spray on the lower trunk of hemlocks.”

Richards said the state doesn’t have the time or the funds for ongoing preventive measures, but the state Department of Transportation will be removing infested ash trees that might threaten the corridors on Route 209 and Route 28.

Rist said there are a lot of trees with problems, a primary example being the beech-bark disease devastating the beeches in the Adirondacks. “As the world shrinks with people traveling, the invasive species become more and more of a problem.”

Richards sees his crews busy working through the winter cleaning up downed trees from Sandy, and cutting down and removing trees that might threaten homes in future storms.

It’s an investment. A large pine similar to the one that came through our house would, he estimated, cost a couple of thousand dollars to get down because it is also close to power lines.

Homeowner insurance does not ordinarily cover the cost of preemptive tree removal. But homeowners may be eligible for loans through the Small Business Administration in an area like Ulster, which has been designated for such aid by FEMA.

It’s an investment in peace of mind. And the night sky is really spectacular once you can see it.

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