Survival of the fittest: Trees have bounced back after the October Surprise - The Buffalo News

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Survival of the fittest: Trees have bounced back after the October Surprise

Their days seemed numbered at first, with their broken branches and fallen limbs.

But seven years after the October Surprise snowstorm – when a heavy, wet snow thrashed parts of the region – many of the damaged trees once considered for possible removal still stand.

A Buffalo News street-by-street survey in Amherst and Buffalo found that a majority of the damaged trees in the public right of way spared during the round of emergency cuts immediately after the storm also survived crews with chain saws in the months and years afterward.

Almost 3,400 trees were cut down in the city in the weeks after the storm.

But the mangy Kwanzan cherry tree at 77 Weiss St., while not so pretty to look at anymore, still stands.

So does the massive American sycamore in front of 324 Moselle St. and the old northern red oak at 142 Villa Ave.

After the storm, about 60,000 trees throughout the area were taken down. Thousands more were marked for removal or were to be watched for possible cutting.

But only one-third of those trees were actually removed. That’s because the trees healed themselves and neighbors stepped in to protect others from aggressive cutting.

In some of the hardest-hit suburbs like Eggertsville and Snyder, hundreds of trees once eyed for removal are growing strong today.

“Nature has a way of protecting itself,” said Greg Haskell, a Southtowns arborist who consulted and worked in numerous towns and villages in the weeks after the devastating Oct. 13, 2006, storm.

Area arborists and foresters prepared lists of damaged trees after the October storm, indicating which ones needed to come down right away and which ones would be later evaluated to determine their fates.

Each of the trees was in the municipal “right of way,” usually between a sidewalk and street.

Using the lists as guides, The Buffalo News recently revisited dozens of neighborhoods to find out how many of the trees still stand.

The results vary by street. But The News found that of the nearly 300 trees on 26 streets in Buffalo and more than 700 trees on 17 streets in Amherst, the majority survived.

On streets in the Central Park and North Park neighborhoods in Buffalo, nearly all of the trees listed in the “possible trim or cut” category still stand. That includes all 22 listed trees on Starin Avenue, nine of 10 on Beard Avenue, and all seven on Woodbridge Avenue.

Trees on other streets, like Peru Place, off Bailey Avenue in Kaisertown, had a different fate. All five trees on Peru were taken down.

The News found that the oldest trees – those with trunks larger than 40 inches in diameter – had a much lower survival rate – about 35 percent.

Of the 20 trees on the city’s post-storm inventory at or greater than 40 inches, 13 have since been cut down, including the largest – a 60-inch diameter tree – at 82 O’Connell Ave. in the First Ward.

Haskell, the 43-year owner of Haskell Tree Service, said he thinks even more trees could have survived, but he blames post-storm hastiness to cut on the part of some government officials – politicians and parks people alike – who relied on lesser-trained tree professionals for advice.

“They cut down thousands and thousands of trees that didn’t have to come down at all,” Haskell said.

Even trees that lose two-thirds of their branches can survive, he said.

So Haskell is not surprised that many of the trees spared immediate removal are still around.

“Those trees are going to want to live,” Haskell said. “They’re going to try to send out suckers and new growth to make new leaves. Those grow and grow and grow very quickly and very rapidly.”

Haskell recalled a red oak tree he serviced in Orchard Park after Oct. 13, 2006.

“Every branch in it was busted,” Haskell said. “If you saw this tree right now, you’d never believe it was just a stub. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

No wait and see

In Buffalo, parks officials said trees put on a list for possible removal may still need to be cut down.

The city in 2010 performed wholesale updates to its list of trees requiring further action when it reassumed control of its parks system from Erie County, said Andrew R. Rabb, the city’s deputy commissioner for city parks and recreation.

No “wait and see” trees appear on city list today, Rabb said.

Those appearing on the list are scheduled for removal based on a priority level. Those threatening imminent hazard get cut down right away.

“We try to do everything we can to keep street trees up as long as we can,” Rabb said. “A tree that’s dying, we do try to get them out.”

After the October Surprise, the city had a backlog of about 3,000 trees awaiting removal, Rabb said. Since the storm, the city has whittled that down to under 1,000 trees by cutting them down.

“Most of the trees scheduled for removal needed to be removed,” Rabb said. “Any tree that sustained damage – and it was about all of them – had the potential to start a chain of decline that manifests itself years later.”

Rabb added that the city – in collaboration with the efforts of Re-Tree WNY volunteers – now plants more trees than it removes every year.

Re-Tree was founded weeks after the storm by about 40 local residents with the aim of re-foresting “every public area that was destroyed by the freak Oct. 12-13 snowstorm.”

“I didn’t know who could have the kind of money and kind of resources to get this done fast enough,” said Paul Maurer, Re-Tree chairman. “We didn’t want to wait for the government to do it.”

Since its first plantings in April 2007, the Re-Tree volunteers, using grants and donations, have planted 25,000 trees in Buffalo and 18 surrounding communities, said Maurer. The overall goal is 30,000.

Combined with the anticipated matching plantings by governments, the new trees will replace the estimated 60,000 trees lost in the October storm.

An upcoming series of weekend plantings, when Re-Tree volunteers will plant about 600 trees, is scheduled to begin Oct. 26.

‘They look like trees now’

Jamie Shaner, a Williamsville resident on Sherbrooke Avenue, knows trees can heal on their own.

Shaner has watched it happen over the last seven years in her neighborhood off Sheridan Drive.

“For the first few years, we looked like a Dr. Seuss tree street,” said Shaner, who complained to town officials about what she believed was an overly aggressive cutting campaign after the October storm. “For awhile, it was pretty funky looking, but they look like trees now.”

On Birdsong Circle and Hobnail Drive, for instance, only one or two marked for removal in the months after the storm were actually cut down, The News survey found.

Karen Sutton, a 20-year resident on nearby Jordan Road, watched crews descend on her neighborhood in 2006 looking to cut down trees.

“They didn’t care about the neighborhood,” Sutton said. “Initially, they went a little crazy.”

Neighbors protested, especially after The News published a front-page photo that the newspaper digitally manipulated to show what Jordan Road would look like if targeted trees were cut down.

Town officials made a concession and left more trees standing than they would have without the neighborhood uproar. Splotches of brown paint can still be seen on the trees that had been targeted for cutting but were not cut.

The News’ street survey on Jordan Road found at least 36 trees out of 58 on the list to be removed still survive today.

The town cut a big tree in front of Sutton’s house, despite her attempt to save it. The town marked the targeted trees by painting a mark on each one. Sutton painted over the color hoping the crews would pass by it. But it was cut down.

“I was very upset,” she said.

She hired an arborist to inspect a tree of hers that was not in the right of way.

“He trimmed it and cut big branches,” Sutton said. “It looked like he almost cut it down to a stick, but now it’s beautiful.”

Some streets in Amherst appeared to have a disproportionate number of trees removed compared to other streets, even nearby ones.

John Pieri’s Tristan Lane, just three streets away from Jordan Road, was one of those where the landscape looks vastly different than it did before the 2006 storm.

There, only about 8 out of 40 trees – 20 percent – survived tree crews’ chainsaws.

“They tagged a lot of trees, but they got a lot of pressure,” said Pieri, recalling those that managed to survive on his street were due to neighbors’ demands. “They didn’t want them removed until they were determined to be fatal.”

Pieri said he believes the town acted responsibly in light of “a lot of problems” associated with the storm but acknowledged nature’s success at fixing itself.

“A lot of them came back. They’re not perfect like they were,” said Pieri.

Then, said Pieri, pointing to a ash tree in his corner lot, “It’s still alive.”

Cemetery wake-up call

A shiny silver lining glistened in every dark lake-effect snow cloud that fateful October night, say those at Forest Lawn.

Officials at the cemetery credit the storm as “the best thing to happen” for the resurgence at the city’s historic burial ground.

The October Surprise storm felled 700 of the cemetery’s 4,000 trees, including a popular and ancient 60-foot American beech tree near Mirror Lake.

In just two days, Forest Lawn’s tree population was slashed by 14 percent. Thousands of others remained standing, but suffered damage.

For the first time in the cemetery’s history, dating back to 1850, officials closed the grounds to the public for a month.

“Our thought in 2006 was survival,” said Joseph Dispenza, Forest Lawn president.

But if anyplace knows about loss, it’s Forest Lawn. Every day, those at the cemetery specialize in helping people overcome loss.

The storm galvanized those at the cemetery – and the community – to appreciate what it once had, and what it could again be, Dispenza said.

“There is a divinity in nature,” Dispenza said. “I’m not a preacher, but it’s there.”

“That storm was the wake-up call this organization needed to refocus on what makes us unique. Our trees are our collection. We treated them as such.”

The storm damage prompted the cemetery to develop a landscape renewal plan with an ambitious goal of returning a long-lost picturesque canopy of trees that once graced its Delaware and West Delavan entrance.

The canopies that once existed were lost during its other “arborgeddon” – when Dutch elm disease ravaged the cemetery’s trees in the 1970s. The disease killed almost all of the 1,200 American elm trees in the cemetery. Seven remain standing today.

“We always say ‘our future is our past,’ ” said Dispenza of the cemetery’s newly crafted plan. “This is our future.”

Now, using money from foundations and its continuing community campaign, Forest Lawn pushes ahead to restore its grounds to prominence as the “first deliberately designed landscape in Greater Buffalo,” Dispenza said.

The cemetery attracts 10,000 visitors annually and continues to repay a $1 million federal disaster loan to help it recover from the storm.

Annual rounds of community tree plantings, including a pair planned Nov. 1 and 2, will help the cemetery reach its goal of 6,200 tree plantings.

“We planted 200 last fall from 12 different species,” said Matt Quirey, who was hired two years ago to be Forest Lawn’s permanent horticultural manager.

“Nature is resilient. Nature has a way of healing and fixing that of which is damaged by nature,” said Dispenza. “The October storm was the catalyst that galvanized not only this community, but the staff of this company to take care of our collection.


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