Weak trees: How climate change is affecting the region’s woodlands

  • Dave Cotton talks about the devastation of red pine trees killed by red pine scale in the Roberts Meadow watershed along Chesterfield Road in Leeds. He believes climate change is playing a role in damaging the trees. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marked and fallen red pine trees in the Roberts Meadow watershed along Chesterfield Road in Leeds killed by the red pine scale a couple of years ago. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A white ash infested with the emerald ash borer that will eventually kill this tree in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Zawalik, an employee for David Cotton, cuts down a willow tree that was at risk of damaging houses with falling limbs. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dave Cotton looks up at a maple tree that was at risk to getting damaged by falling red pines killed by the red pine scale in the Roberts Meadow watershed along Chesterfield Road in Leeds. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Cotton operates the crane to haul out branches of a willow tree on Vernon Street in Northampton that had to be cut down because dead branches were at risk of damaging homes around it. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Zawalik, an employee for David Cotton, cuts down a willow tree that was at risk of damaging houses with falling limbs. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dave Cotton talks about the devastation to the red pines by the red pine scale in the Roberts Meadow watershed along Chesterfield Road in Leeds as an example of the damage trees are taking as a result of a changing climate. Behind him is an example of a red pine that died and fell on one of the maple trees. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2021 4:12:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On the side of Chesterfield Road in Leeds, dead red pine trees are scattered on the floor of a forest along a stream.

“This is horrific,” David Cotton, owner of Cotton Tree Service, said. “This is not how the woods should look.”

Several years ago, Cotton helped the city clear red pine trees dying from tiny insects called red pine scales. In the area along Chesterfield Road, dying trees were removed to save the smaller maple trees in the area. Some of the trees Cotton removed, he said, were 90 years old.

Cotton has been working with trees for decades, and now he’s seeing “broad scale deterioration of the forest,” and he looks to climate change as the problem.

The city’s Tree Warden, Richard Parasiliti, isn’t sure what the exact impact of climate change is on the red pine scale. But he said, “what climate change has done is put a tremendous amount of drought pressure on all tree species thus making them more susceptible to disease and pests.”

Trees in decline are a prime host, he said.

“Once they become stressed, it’s just like a human — you get stressed out about something and your immune system goes down … you’re potentially catching a cold easier. Trees are the same way.”

The city has more than 10,000 trees in public rights of way, parks and cemeteries, and 30% of that canopy is maple trees, Parasiliti said. Street trees in the city have sequestered more than 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide, according to an estimate from Davey Resource Group on the city’s website.

“The combination of the stress of the droughts we’ve had over the last five years,” he said, “and these other hotter summers and these other environmental impacts are really causing the sugar maples to decline rapidly. That’s unfortunate.”

Sugar maples don’t like salt, which is used on the road and ends up in the soil, he said.

The Norway maple has a similar issue. Those trees were planted to replace trees dying of disease in the 1940s to 1970s, Parasiliti said.

“They seemed to be hearty … but given the pressures of climate change and environmental factors they are struggling.”

‘The planet is warming’

When it comes to climate change, “I wouldn’t specifically say that Hampshire County is different than any other place in the world,” said Kristina Bezanson, a lecturer in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The planet is warming. We’re having more severe weather.”

Cotton has seen more storm-related tree damage in the last 10 years than during the previous 40 years of his career, he said. For example, he recently took down a weeping willow in Northampton.

“Because of winds we can’t in good conscience recommend saving the tree,” he said, adding that if there is high wind, it could be knocked down and cause damage to the residential area.

Bezanson also pointed to storms as an issue. “It just makes sense because we’re getting more frequent storms and they are so intense.” Droughts can weaken trees, and when there are high winds, “things are going to snap off. The trees aren’t able to withstand that.”

Another issue is warm spikes in winter. “A lot of this heating and cooling and thawing and unthawing for a short period of time is not a big deal,” Bezanson said, “but when this is happening over and over and over again repeatedly, like I said, there’s going to be trees that can acclimate to that and there are trees that cannot.”

When it warms up in the winter, trees start to wake up and unsuccessfully try to drink water from the frozen ground, Parasiliti said. “That’s why having warm spikes in the winter months when the ground is frozen isn’t healthy for the tree.”

Cotton also worries about invasive species. In Westhampton, just down the road from the area where Cotton cleared dying red pines years ago, he pointed out ash trees with damage from the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle.

The bug was first discovered in Massachusetts in 2012, and has been found in Hampshire County towns during the past few years, according to the state Bureau of Forest Fire Control and Forestry.

The insect eats the ash tree. “This tree is a time bomb waiting to fall over,” Cotton said.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, written by U.S. Global Change Research Program and released in 2018, highlights the beetle in its chapter on the Northeast. “Warmer winters will likely contribute to earlier insect emergence, and expansion in the geographic range and population size of important tree pests such as the hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer, and southern pine beetle,” it reads.

There are pests that have come up from more southern parts of the country, Bezanson said, such as the southern pine beetle. With climate change, some pests are “marching their way up from the mid-Atlantic,” she said.

Bezanson worries about trees and climate change. “I worry about it every day,” she said. “That’s why I’m an arborist, because I’m trying to make a difference.”

Trees mitigate the impacts of climate change, she added.

“There are huge goals in the world to plant trees but there doesn’t seem to be the effort around maintaining the trees we already have … I’m concerned about trying to hold on to the trees we already have.”

For example, she said, “during a drought, people freak out about their lawn turning brown where they really should be freaking out about their tree dying.” Adding water and mulch for the tree can help, she said.

Parasiliti is also thinking about ways to adapt. The city is trying to plant different types of species — like trees that are salt-tolerant and trees that are better in warmer climates.

“We basically have been trying to diversify,” he said. And a lot of residents are interested in the city’s tree canopy. “They bring things to my attention,” Parasiliti said. “They send me emails about trees.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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