Trees Slow to Recover from Ice Storm Damage

The sounds of falling tree limbs and splitting trunks cracked through the air last week, echoing off of buildings and thick layers of ice and piercing the quiet of storm-worn Northwest Arkansas.

After two days of belowfreezing temperatures and ice accumulation, even large, mature trees succumbed to the weight, changing form through a series of snaps and cracks that promise to alter Northwest Arkansas' landscape for years to come.

As power is slowly restored to the region's customers and roads grow more passable, residents and business owners will attempt to salvage trees - ranging from small saplings on residential culs de sac to century-old native species on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

"Trees are such long-living organisms," said Tamara Walkingstick, assistant professor of forestry for the university's agriculture extension. "It's a much different life cycle, so they don't respond to the whacking like a rose bush or a shrub would."


When Rogers resident Jon Bauman saw the damage to his undeveloped half-acre Prairie Creek residential lot, he quickly resigned himself to turning the damaged trees into piles of firewood - but he lacked the resources to do the job.

Bauman posted an online classified ad on Craigslist, offering free firewood for anyone willing to make the winding drive to the sloped lot of Dam Site Road and put in a few hours with a chainsaw.

"You can have the stress and lumber," the ad read. "I might even help with the loading."

Bauman got 10 responses in the first two days from people willing to chop down his oak trees, which split mid-trunk during the storm.

"I hope somebody can put them to good use," he said.

He's not alone.

Within days, Craigslist quickly filled with dozens of ads asking for help clearing lots and trimming trunks, and offering jobs on work crews. Customers flocked to piles of chainsaws moved to the front aisle of Wal-Mart stores.

Greg Howe, Fayetteville's urban forester, keeps a database of tree companies certified to work in the city. Companies must take a test about tree recovery and provide proof of insurance to be listed.

The city suspended certification requirements because of overwhelming need in the wake of the storm, but Howe encouraged homeowners to consult the list before hiring an inexperienced crew.

Walkingstick, the UA professor, said inexperienced crews sweep through areas like Northwest Arkansas every winter, offering dangerous advice to homeowners.

"I know it will happen," she said. "It happens after every storm."

Before determining if a tree is salvageable, it's important to remove hazardous branches, Walkingstick said.

Trees worth saving include young trees leaning less than 45 degrees and trees without damage to the trunk or major branches.

"If it looks like a quarter to a third of it is majority damaged, you probably should remove it," Walkingstick said. "Even though little branches may come back, the tree is not really regenerating itself. The branches that do grow are kind of loosely connected," which means they could split from the trunk later.

People should also avoid "hat racking," or cutting off branches around the tops of trees to prevent future damage. The branches that grow in their place often have bark or wood scars separating them from the tree structure, making them likely to fall and cause further property damage, she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that ice accumulation can increase a tree branch's weight by more than 30 times, according to the organization's Web site.

"That's a heck of a lot of weight," Walkingstick said. "It could take years to fully recover."


UA Chancellor G. David Gearhart's parents told him stories of walking below the branches of 100-year-old oak trees on the university's campus when the then-young couple first met.

Many of those same trees may now have to be cut down, Gearhart said Friday.

"It's a really sad, sad tragic situation," he said.

The arboretum around Old Main, which holds at least one of every native Arkansas tree species, was hardest hit by the storm.

The potential loss around the emblematic building is particularly emotional for alumni, who walked to classes and even proposed marriage under the trees' branches, Gearhart said.

"Our hope is that over time, we will put it back to where it was," he said. "It will take many years for the growth to occur, that's the tragedy about it."

The campus shut down for four days last week, the first time in UA's 137-year history of cancellations for more than two days in a row because of weather.

While most of the buildings had power, large falling limbs posed a danger to those walking across campus, Gearhart said.

Workers hurried Friday to remove dangerous limbs, but it will be several weeks before they can determine what's salvageable, he said.


Cities with more diverse tree populations are more likely to maintain canopies through plant disease outbreaks and severe storms, said Howe, the Fayetteville forester.

No species should make up more than 30 percent of a city's tree population, he said.

Researchers who assessed Fayetteville's tree population in 2001 suggested a 10 percent threshold.

The study, conducted by Montana-based Natural Path Forestry Consultants, found that 38 percent of the city's trees are Norway, silver or sugar maples.

Also high on the list were Bradford pears and red maples. The trees, popular in residential subdivisions for the fast-growth and vivid color, are often the first to snap in an ice storm, Howe said.

"The city itself has already learned the lesson on the Bradford pears," he said. "They're very poor developers at the structural system."

City leaders hope to encourage homeowners to replant slower growing trees with more structural integrity.

Under ordinances in several Northwest Arkansas cities, developers and commercial property owners will be required to replant carefully.

Bentonville requires developers who plant more than 10 trees to use at least two varieties, and Fayetteville regulates size and placement of trees around power lines and rights-of-way.

A tree ordinance passed in Rogers last year lists preferred species for planting in commercial developments.

Given the severity of last week's storm, "there's not too many species that have gone untouched at this point," Howe said.

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