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Extend tree deadline More greenery is threatened by rush to meet FEMA compensation end date

The October Surprise storm continues to wreak havoc, this time with help from a government that needs to listen to local residents fighting for the survival of trees that add economic, educational and environmental value to city and suburban neighborhoods.

A movement to allow trees to "self-heal" has taken root, so to speak, as citizens and organizations work to extend a one-year deadline for tree removal reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Pushing that deadline back to October 2008 could save 30 percent to 40 percent of the 57,000 trees now slated to be removed.

The feds should consider three issues that Re-Tree Western New York has raised:

* Stump removal: Unless the root is at least 50 percent out of the ground, FEMA will not reimburse removal costs. The only way a tree root gets that far out of the ground is if there is a tipping event, which usually occurs when wind hits the side of a tree. Hurricanes and tornadoes knock trees over and lay them horizontally, so that the roots are sticking out of the ground.

That logic shapes the FEMA rule. But heavy snowfalls, adding weight from the top rather than pressure from the side, break branches but don't lift roots out unless the tree is already leaning. Only about 5 percent of the trees removed were leaning.

Further, stump grinding costs approximately $300 to $350 for each tree, leaving tax-increase averse municipalities no choice but to "rob Peter to pay Paul" in budgeting stump removals.

* Extension of the FEMA reimbursement deadline: Damaged trees can "self-heal," but it takes time to see if that is happening. This is a key issue in areas that have certain types of tree species that are large and expensive to remove.

Sometimes, to be sure, removals are precautionary. Some suburbs, as Amherst did in the late 1950s, planted a large number of silver maples. These trees are fast-growing but tend to be brittle, and when they break, large branches fall. This makes the silver maple, by reputation, the No. 1 human-killer of all trees.

Amherst officials are understandably concerned that if the trees are left standing and they cause human deaths, there is a municipal liability. As David Colligan of Re-Tree WNY said, no matter how many residents say they will assume liability for their trees, multimillion-dollar civil litigation has to be taken into account. Homeowners eventually will sell their homes, but cities and towns will still be on the hook.

But some species of trees will survive, naturally, and remain strong. By extending the deadline, FEMA can save some of the reimbursement costs it would normally pay out just because of the tight deadline -- and could use some of that savings to expand reimbursements for stump removals.

* Cemeteries: These areas sustained as much damage as parks and street trees, but don't receive FEMA reimbursement because of a rule exception. Cemeteries are under financial pressure because of the cost of tree repair and removal. That exception should be reconsidered.

Expert decisions are needed, and both FEMA's rules and Western New York's damaged trees need reviewing. A certain number of trees will require removal, but a one-year "commutation" of that sentence to see if marginally damaged trees can survive will be enough time for officials to make a clear and reasonable assessment. That assessment should not be driven solely by the rules for reimbursement -- it should be driven by the needs of the community, and by hope for the trees.

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