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Wilson city arborist Mike Webster stepped up to the hollow stump of an aging willow oak that city workers had just cut down on Pine Street.
The tree was more than 12 feet in circumference, but the wall of wood around its edges was less than a foot thick all the way around.
“That tree needed to come out,” Webster said. “You can’t tell how old it is. There aren’t any rings to count.”
The gigantic tree’s core had rotted away some time ago. Its age couldn’t be determined with any certainty.
“I would say that this tree was planted here right after World War I,” Webster said.
Webster would know.
Since 2007, it’s been his job to identify, measure and give a health prognosis on the 12,269 trees in the city’s tree inventory.
That includes all the trees on city properties and on the city street rights-of-way and all city parks except Buckhorn, Wiggins Mill and the Gillette Athletic Complex.
Webster said determining a tree’s health is not an exact science.
“The rule of thumb is if you have 30 percent decay, you should probably take it out,” Webster said.
It wasn’t obvious that the big willow oak on Pine Street was hollow, but Webster found a little hole in the trunk, stepped onto a ladder and inserted a metal rod deep into the tree, encountering no resistance.
“Hopefully I get them out before they get as bad as that,” Webster said.
‘A BUFFET OF PROBLEMS’
Cores rotting out is part of the problem, but there are other dangerous aspects to decaying trees.
“You can have a big oak tree where all of the branches join together at say 20 feet above the ground sort of like in a ball and they come together there and there is a junction,” Webster said. “If there is a weakness in that area, those big, huge limbs will fall, too. You may have a tree that is 90 years and has a pretty solid core and most of the top of the tree is dead.”
Webster said sometimes it’s a real tough call whether a tree should be removed.
“I try to make a good effort at examining the tree very closely,” Webster said. “You got to get a view from all sides.”
A sure indicator is a lot of die back in a tree or rot around the trunk.
Safety is a major consideration.
“Once a tree is identified as dangerous or in poor condition, that is a recognizable danger and we have to react to that,” Webster said.
Wilson residents will call the city complaining about a tree near their property.
“Probably the most serious aspect is that they think there is a danger involved,” Webster said. “That’s first of all. Second of all, they tell us things like it’s pushing up their sidewalk or it’s pushing up their driveway. It’s in their sewer lines. It’s in their water lines and they want it removed. There’s a sight obstruction. We even have people call and complain that they are tired of raking leaves.”
Webster said it’s “a buffet of problems.”
“Sometimes we do look at a tree and it is dangerous and we take it out,” Webster said. “More often than not, we don’t.”
“Essentially the trees in the historic area are the oldest in Wilson,” Webster said. “Most of those that are living that were planted after World War I, they were planted in the early 1920s, so some of them are 80 to 90 years old.”
Generally, the average life expectancy of a healthy oak on a street is 60 to 70 years and then it starts to decline, Webster said.
“That’s a standard, an average,” Webster said. “Some trees don’t make it to 70. Some make it to 100. Most of the ones we are dealing with now are somewhere in the 75 to 100-year range and a lot of them are in decline.”
Webster said Hurricane Fran in 1996 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999 removed a lot of those older trees in Wilson.
“On Raleigh Road there, we lost a lot of those trees in the historic areas,” Webster said. “It was really sad. We lost a tremendous amount. We had places in Wilson that didn’t get power for almost three weeks. Nash Street was decimated and the other streets in the historic areas.”
Webster called the big oaks “geriatric trees.”
Webster said he believes Wilson has already gone beyond the apex when most of those older trees have either fallen or had to be removed for one reason or another.
“That coincides with the fact that it is in the historic area of Wilson and they are the oldest trees too, and so they have been around the longest,” Webster said. “There is more decline in that area of town than there is in others. And there is a correlation with the age of the trees and the stresses that they have undergone. I think we are past the climax.”
“I don’t want the public to think that we are going out taking all trees out from World War I,” Webster said. “We are not doing that.”
Webster said the city prunes about 150 trees a year and takes out close to 100 trees a year on average.
REPLANTING a tree city
Near the intersection of Raleigh Road and Nash Street, Webster pointed out a tree whose top has died off. Webster has had his eye on it for years, keeping tabs on the degree of its decline.
Knowing that the tree was likely to soon be removed, Webster had several other trees planted down the block to begin reestablish the canopy in the area.
Around the corner at 314 Nash St., an old water oak was recently removed. A count of its rings indicated it was more than 114 years old.
“The top was rotted out and we took it out, but before we took it out, I planted two white oaks at each end of the property knowing that I was going to take that tree out,” Webster said. “In that case, I put in two for one. If I am taking one out that’s big and huge, and I can plant two for one, then we do it.”
Webster said trees are a manageable resource.
“While I like trees, trees are a finite resource,” Webster said. “At some point in time there is a danger element with the big trees and we have to assess that and remove it. When we do we want to replant back so that for generations to come, Wilson will continue to be the city of trees, which is sort of our heritage.”
Wilson has held the Tree City USA designation for 37 years.
“The only way we can get them back is to replant,” Webster said. “We take out and we put back. Sometimes we put back more than others.”
“I have been fortunate to be involved with the tree program almost 40 years come July,” Webster said. “Originally, Burt Gillette fathered the city’s tree program as the parks and recreation director and established the first appearance commission. I tell people that Burt was the Johnny Appleseed of Wilson’s tree heritage.”
Wilsonians can report tree issues by calling Lisa Rogers in the city’s public works department at 252-399-2261.