Experts say Augusta tree canopy harmed by ice storm

Trees vulnerable as weather warms

Already weakened from a soggy summer, Augusta’s tree canopy sustained major blows during February’s ice storm and is now vulnerable to losing more limbs in coming months as warmer weather awakens insect borers from hibernation, experts say.

“It is far from over,” said Ian Campbell, an arborist and manager of Bartlett Tree Experts of Augusta. “We are going to see more tree loss over the summer from increased borer insect activity moving into the area.”

Citing a 2009 study published by the U.S. Forest Service, Campbell said wood borers and bark beetles are likely to invade evergreen trees such as pines and oaks, which release increased levels of organic compounds and ethanol under stress.

Campbell said homeowners can help strengthen their evergreen canopies through increased fertilization, but Roy Simkins, an arborist and the chairman of the Richmond County Tree Commission, estimates that 25 to 30 percent of the area’s pine and oak populations were lost and that replanting is necessary.

“The only thing I know to do is replant,” Simkins said. “That’s the logical next step, in my opinion.”

He said that if the city decides to start a replanting program, it needs to be selective in the types of trees it chooses to ensure Augusta has a population that’s structurally sound and can withstand another ice storm.

“We need to sustain our reputation as the Garden City, and we need the canopy to help us with our temperatures, stormwater and general appearance of the area,” he said.

No replanting plans have been announced by the city. Steve Cassell, the assistant director of traffic engineering, said his office has focused all of its attention on clearing the 500,000 cubic yards of debris left by the storm.

According to the latest reports, 22 bucket trucks and 71 hauling crews in Augusta have completed 70 percent of the debris removal and will begin a second pass through the city this week after announcing a last call for pickup.

So far, Cassell said teams have collected more than 22,000 hanging limbs and 718 leaning trees, which he estimates is enough to fill 85 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Crews project 35,000 hanging limbs and 1,000 leaning trees will be collected by the city before cleanup is complete, which is expected to end April 5.

“Some streets are going to look significantly different when all the debris is cleared,” he said.

Campbell estimated that 85 percent of Augusta’s tree population was affected in some way by the ice storm and that trees that haven’t fallen or lost 25 to 30 percent of their canopies are still viable candidates for landscape trees. All others, he said, might not last.

Simkins said the hardest-hit areas include the Summerville and Forest Hill neighborhoods.

“All the evergreens were just absolutely decimated,” Campbell said. “Very few trees went unscathed.”

Campbell said that although government-paid crews are collecting debris from the streets, the same needs to take place on residential properties.

The two arborists said there is a desire to preserve canopies and that professionals are looking at suppressing borer activity in the next few weeks.

“We have lost a lot of our urban tree canopy and will probably lose more when the dust settles,” Simkins said. “I am sure we can expect bark beetles to seek out some of these trees.”

Campbell recommended homeowners have soil tests conducted on their properties to determine what nutrients their ground lacks, but he said short-term solutions that could help trees recover include inserting fertilizer stakes filled with 10-10-10 evergreen solutions on their land.

“When we fertilize, we’re giving trees the vitamins they need to recover, just like a person,” he said. “Trees naturally can defend against insect and disease but need to be healthy to do so.”

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