October 6, 2012

Drought inflicts heavy toll on city’s trees

Whirring chain saws and crashing trees tell the story. Two years of drought have taken a heavy toll on Wichita. Crews are everywhere taking out dead trees and limbs.

Whirring chain saws and crashing trees tell the story.

Two years of drought have taken a heavy toll on Wichita. Crews are everywhere taking out dead trees and limbs.

By the end of the year, city crews will have removed about 6,000 trees this year. That’s twice as many as were removed in 2011, said Gary Farris, the city’s arborist.

Private tree service companies also have seen significant increase in work, and some are having a record year for tree removals.

Trouble for trees in south-central Kansas actually started five years ago with wet years in 2008 and 2009, which caused trees to lose roots. Those trees needed all the roots they could get to soak up what little water was available during the drought years that followed.

“It was the worst thing that could follow root loss,” said Tim McDonnell, a community forester for the Kansas Forest Service.

In the first part of 2011, official temperatures dropped to 17 below in February, then soared to 100 degrees by May, putting a heavy hit on trees. A mild winter this year allowed disease and insects to flourish and suck the life out of dry, stressed trees.

“All kinds of trees we thought would be around for years are dying,” said Brian Hurd, arborist for Ball’s Tree Service. “The insect population is 10 to 50 times worse. South-central Kansas has been great for killing trees.”

But the problems aren’t over.

“Typically, when you have drought after drought years, you see effects for the next two to five years,” McDonnell said.

In the meantime, work to clean out the dead trees is at a fast pace.

On top of already cutting down more than 3,000 dead trees so far this year, the city has pruned about 11,000 trees – with a lot of that work including taking out dead limbs, Farris said.

Sometimes questions arise about whether it’s the city’s or the property owner’s responsibility to take care of a dead tree or hazardous limbs. But Farris said the dividing line is simple:

If the tree is on city property or right-of-way, such as in the green space between a sidewalk and street, the city is responsible. If the tree is on private property, usually on the side of the sidewalk closest to the property, it’s the owner’s responsibility.

If a tree is on private property but has dead limbs hanging over streets or sidewalks, no, the city won’t prune them back to the property line, Farris said. The property owner must take care of it.

If there are no sidewalks or there are other reasons it’s difficult to tell where city right-of-way starts and the property owner’s land begins because boundary stakes are buried, hiring a surveyor is the only sure way of determining the boundary lines, city officials said.

Don Armstrong, of Wichita’s Armstrong Land Survey, said a survey generally costs $200 to $500, depending on how many obstacles the surveyor has to work around. Older developments have more obstacles, like trees, he said.

It’s worth knowing for sure who is responsible for a dead tree because removing one isn’t cheap. Removing a tree about the size of a person’s leg up costs $300, with $1,000 to $2,000 for larger trees, according to several tree service companies. One company said its most expensive tree removal in Wichita cost $3,500.

Farris said homeowners need to hire a tree service to cut down a dead tree.

“Trying to do it yourself is dangerous,” he said.

If the city receives a complaint about a property owner who fails to remove dead trees or limbs that present a safety threat, the office of central inspection will notify the owner, OCI interim superintendent Donte Martin said. If that doesn’t work, the city will remove the tree or limbs and send the bill to the property owner, he added.

Anyone with concerns about a dead tree or limbs on city property should call the forestry department at 268-4003 or 268-4004, Farris said.

The city has to look after more than 350,000 trees on its rights-of-way and golf courses and in parks, so losing 6,000 this year doesn’t seem like that much – less than 2 percent.

But Farris noted that’s on top of heavy losses in recent years. Since 2009, the city has averaged losing nearly 3,400 trees yearly. An average year sees the city lose 1,200 to 1,500.

Between January and March of this year, the city planted 1,800 to 2,000 trees. How many will be planted next year is up in the air.

“It’s all budget driven,” Farris said. “I haven’t been given my budget allowance to replace trees at this point. I don’t know what we can or can’t replace. We plant as many as we can.”

Individuals can buy trees and plant them on city rights-of-way. The trees must be suitable for the area and will become city property. They would also need a city permit, which is free, Farris said.

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