Tree budgets

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What’s a budget? A budget is an estimate of income and expenditures over a set period of time. If trees came with budget sheets attached to them, they might surprise you based upon their location, species, and size. This “tree budget” became apparent to me while assessing trees for a homeowners’ association near Swan Lake in Sullivan County. A dozen white pines had been planted in 1950 – almost 70 years ago – in a row surrounding several homes. The trees were planted approximately 20 feet apart and now were about 100 feet tall with diameters over 25” at 4.5 feet from the ground.

In the black

I imagine that when these trees were first planted, they appeared harmless; Perhaps ¼” – ½” tiny trees whipping in the wind at a whopping five feet. The fresh dirt from tree planting symbolized optimism and good things to come, and for a while, they fulfilled their promise. As the trees grew, they met their intended goals – as a privacy screen from adjacent homes. Young white pine fills out nicely, stretching the evergreen branches from bottom to top and screening houses and objects from the other side. In other words, the attached budget sheet during the first few decades showed in the black or a positive return.

Into the red

However, after about 1980 or so, the trees begin to really shoot up. They’re now above the roof-line, while their waist-lines are putting on mass too. Since they were never pruned when they were younger, they have developed “structural defects” or codominant leaders from white pine weevil damage, making them less stable too. Although these large trees provided homeowners some savings during the summer through shade, the budget sheet still sank into the red. The trees became a potential “hazard” to life and property as height and mass increased. In each passing year, the trees’ smaller problems became next year’s larger problem. In this way they accrued liability and future costs. Since white pine is fairly brittle and susceptible to wind damage, their hazard-making condition only increased. After year 2000, their height was even greater. The trees were now so tall, that they stood out from the adjacent forest edge as “high-hairs” for the next big wind-storm to catch and leverage over onto property or people.

Several homeowners were obviously concerned, especially the ones with houses directly nearby. Since there was still consensus on preserving these beautifully big and sentimental trees, money was spent to cable them to reduce co-dominant leaders from splitting. This cost about $3,000. For a while, everyone was happy, until a devastating wind-storm hit nearby and blew over many of the white pine trees in the county. Thank god it didn’t strike their white pines. But what if it had? Discussions about removal developed, but first they wanted the opinion of an arborist. Enter me in 2019.

Many of these trees are in fact hazardous; Simply put, they’re just the wrong tree, in the wrong spot. If they were located 60 feet or more from the house, or were pruned properly when younger, their budget sheets might today be “in the black.” Instead, tree removal was recommended due to improper cabling, the lack of healthy crowns – since the trees were planted too closely – and the size and nature of white pine. Removal of them could be as much as $20,000. They have already spent $3,000, so could total $23,000 in the red.

Budgeting for the long-term

To me, $23,000 sounds like a lot. However, if we were to extrapolate this number since 1950, that’s about $328/year. Of course, we’d have to adjust for 1950s dollars, but you get the point. The point is to show that trees planted in the wrong place or mis-managed, may be accruing cost, rather than adding benefit. In contrast, a straight-growing sugar maple tree in the forest may be accruing value as diameter and length increase, but a white pine near several houses may not be. Also, tree species matters too. A dogwood tree growing near a house may not live as long, but it’s budget costs will never amount to the white pine’s since it doesn’t grow nearly as tall or create nearly as much liability.

Can large trees ever be planted near houses? I think they can if carefully managed from the beginning to the end. Another method would be to set up a savings account in which a certain amount is set aside for those in the future who may be faced with management or removal. But seriously, who’s really going to do that? Not included in the budget are the intrinsic or sentimental feelings for the trees. It’s difficult to put a dollar sign on this. However, when it’s time to remove a tree, surely removal/mitigation costs are being weighed against the tree’s sentimental benefits. The other challenge in setting up budgets for trees is that they live so long. White pine is actually considered one of the faster-growers, but oak or maple are slower growing and may require even more long-term planning. Other trees – like shagbark hickory – do not grow as tall, but come with higher maintenance costs since they drop a ton of nuts and husks each year. However, if you like eating shagbark hickory nuts like I do, that may be a positive; That’s a personal call.

In conclusion, it’s probably best to plant the right tree in the right spot and not leave others down the road with a $20,000 surprise cash payment. Typically, it seems that most future costs can be prevented during planting. All too often, too many trees are planted too closely together, while mature heights per species are ignored. I’d recommend planting smaller trees near the house and larger ones further away. Adding diversity to species selection may help too, since you never know what future diseases may come. Just think if you planted all white ashes near your house back in the day, given today’s devastating emerald ash borer.

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