Tree care workers remove a severely decayed water oak that failed during a storm in Baton Rouge. Photo by Hallie Dozier.
This has been quite a southern summer in Louisiana — in its fullest, finest, steamiest and stormiest! Despite the pandemic, Louisiana arborists have kept busy doing what they do every summer, pruning and removing trees that could be hazards during storm events. Now that Hurricane Laura has left its mark, many are pitching in with storm cleanup. Licensed arborists truly take on the role of emergency workers after a storm, getting trees off buildings and roadways, and speeding the rate of recovery and restoration. Storm cleanup work is truly some of the most difficult work a tree care professional can do. The hazards of the work include many hidden dangers, such as downed-but-energized power lines, heat exhaustion, fatigue and, perhaps most of all, the unpredictable dynamics of trees in lying in a tangle or perched in a precarious position. These hazards are compounded by the pressure and the rush to get the job done so others can come in and begin the recovery.
In the rush to clean up, recover and restore, however, it is critical to remember that commercial tree work — removals and pruning for a fee — is a state-licensed profession. During a state of emergency, such as following a hurricane, the area will be flooded with people looking to make money; some have licenses, but many others do not. It is important to check before you hire! A state-licensed arborist has proven competence in technical and applied knowledge, and he or she will carry insurance that covers damages that may occur on the job. This means that it is in the best interest of the property owner to hire out tree work only to a state licensed arborist. Check and verify the arborist’s credentials by calling the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry at 225-952-8100 or download the LDAF Business Search app from Google Play or the Apple App Store.
The good news for us is that there are over 500 licensed tree care professionals across Louisiana who have been doing storm preparation work all summer to prevent damage. Now, many of them are helping with cleanup in the western and central parts of the state. The bad news is that when the storms start rolling across the Atlantic or brewing up in the Gulf of Mexico, home and business owners turn a fearful eye to their trees, and fear — founded or unfounded — is a powerful motivator. The fear can sometimes, rightfully, lead to unnecessary tree removals. Did I say “rightfully?” The sad truth is that many of the older trees in our urban and residential landscapes have been neglected and abused for decades and truly can pose a legitimate threat to life and property. On that day when a neglected tree — especially large growing species such as oaks and pines — fails and causes damage, all trees suddenly seem dangerous. The pity is that, had the trees not been taken for granted, abused and neglected by their owners, they may have been retained in the landscape for decades more to come.
I recently witnessed the result of fear when a storm blew through a Baton Rouge neighborhood and topped out a seriously decayed water oak (Quercus nigra). There is no doubt this tree had to go, but the trauma of the storm and the roof damage led the homeowner to also remove three other large trees “just in case.” These other trees were solid and strong and did not need to go. It did not help that the company (unlicensed scoundrels, by the way) gave the owner a rock-bottom price to wreak all this damage. That is to their shame, but it is also to the shame of the homeowner to ask for healthy, structurally sound trees to be removed unnecessarily. Fear, including unfounded fear, can lead to unnecessary tree removals, which damages urban forests and diminishes the benefits we gain.
Trees are large, heavy, potentially hazardous, beautiful and beneficial organisms that need year-round care and attention. But they do not ask for much. It could be as simple and effective as laying down some mulch and ensuring the trees are adequately watered during dry spells. Or it may be as complex as hiring someone trained to devise a tree hazard mitigation plan that includes annual reevaluation and assessment. The fact is that trees stand up and they will, eventually, fall. It is to us as owners to determine how long “eventually” lasts. With thoughtful and minimal care, trees can remain healthy and sound longer, benefiting the owner and the larger landscape.
On another topic, this one close to everyone’s hearts, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect all aspects of life here as it does elsewhere in the country and around the globe. Louisiana’s first COVID-19 case was announced early in March, just a few weeks following Mardi Gras. Quickly thereafter, the whole state came under stay-at-home orders, meaning that, among other things, the spring continuing education unit (CEU) programs for state-licensed arborists were canceled. This included the LSU AgCenter’s first night-class series for CEUs in New Orleans. Normal operations are still in a flux, even though we entered our Phase 2 in early June. That said, at this time the LSU AgCenter is offering in-person CEU classes for licensed arborists in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Pollock, St. Martinville, Shreveport and Homer this fall. We also are offering online opportunities to earn CEUs.
— Hallie Dozier is an associate professor in the LSU AgCenter School of Renewable Natural Resources.