Opening the Tree Canopy

Witnessing the circle of life, in late October the Elachee family had to bid adieu to a couple of towering trees that stood tall as greeters to the Nature Center.

by Peter Gordon, Elachee Director of Education, and Lee Irminger, Elachee Natural Resources Manager

Two majestic Scarlet oaks (Quercus coccinea) located along the sidewalk leading into the Elachee Visitor Center suffered storm damage when Tropical Storm Michael passed through the region in early October. Over a two-week period each had begun to noticeably lean over the sidewalk. When the Elachee staff discovered a small mound of bulging soil (soil heaving) around one tree’s trunk, the arborists were called in to examine them. The verdict: they were a hazard and needed to be taken down immediately – 20 hours later!

Scarlet oak damaged by high winds from Tropical Storm Michael had to be removed.

Ironically, an arborist checked these trees earlier this summer as part of routine care, with no damage visible at that time. Last September, the winds from Hurricane Irma uprooted and brought down hundreds of mature trees in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve, many of them Red oaks.

The fallen trees introduce gaps in the forest canopy which allows for new growth to occur and for slower growing trees to develop. This encourages a more diverse mixed-age forest.

Trees can have relatively shallow root systems that extend beyond the drip line (area under outer circumference of  tree branches). Soils across the Southeast largely eroded away during earlier times of vast clear-cutting and unsustainable agriculture, leaving little soil depth for the trees recolonizing the landscape to root in.

There are several factors that contributed to the fall of these trees. The towering trees were vulnerable to high winds that compromised these trees’ root structures, fracturing their root plates as evidenced by soil heaving around the base of the trees. Typically, soil heaving is visible within a distance approximate to the diameter of the tree and looks like the fractured ground you may imagine associated with an earthquake.

New Urban Forestry deployed a grapple crane truck to assist in taking down these giant Scarlet oaks lining the entrance to Elachee Nature Science Center.

Safely removing these two giants was no small task. In fact, a very specialized piece of equipment was brought in to complete the task. New Urban Forestry utilized a grapple crane truck, only one of 100 such pieces of equipment operating in the United States.

Pictured is the crane assembly associated with the grapple crane truck. The tree on the front left is a Live oak with the two Scarlet oaks behind it.

Within a short 3-hour period, they opened the canopy by skillfully taking down these mature trees. The tree remains have been relocated in the forest near their original growth, as per the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve conservation easement guidelines. And so, the circle of life continues.

The Oak’s Importance

The Scarlet oak is in the Red oak group. The red refers to the color of its wood; the fall leaf color can be red or brown. Oaks, including those in the Chicopee Woods, can be assigned to two groups, the White oaks and the Red oaks.  

Over the years we at Elachee have seen how important oaks are to the ecology of northeast Georgia. Over 500 different species of moth and butterfly lay their eggs on oak trees. The resulting caterpillars are the primary baby food for many of 150 species of birds found in the Chicopee Woods.

Although 2018 appears to be a lean acorn year, our front plaza and trail heads are usually covered by thousands of acorns that deer, squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers, blue jays and others greedily consume. The blanket of leaves each oak tree lays down in the fall recharges the soil-building process and brings enormous amounts of carbon back to earth. 

It is hard to say goodbye to these iconic trees that we needed to move to their next stage of life. Sentimentally, we thank these Scarlet oaks for lives well-lived and the work they did on behalf of the ecosystem surrounding the Nature Center buildings.  

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