Uncertain future for Maine trees buried under ice

Trees across Maine have been hit hard by the recent ice storm.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Trees across Maine have been hit hard by the recent ice storm. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 27, 2013, at 3:48 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 28, 2013, at 12:40 p.m.
Trees across Maine have been hit hard by the recent ice storm.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Trees across Maine have been hit hard by the recent ice storm. Buy Photo
Trees across Maine have been hit hard by the recent ice storm.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Trees across Maine have been hit hard by the recent ice storm. Buy Photo

VASSALBORO, Maine — Joe and Adele Suga are waiting anxiously in their powerless house in Vassalboro. When the weather improves, they will venture outside to check the condition of their 400 maple trees, which they have tapped for syrup, and their pines and hemlocks, which they harvest for lumber.

“What we’re waiting for is a thaw,” Joe Suga said on Thursday. “We hope it happens soon. Our other concern is the snow that we’re getting, it’s going to add more weight.”

Across the state, trees are caked in ice as a result of Tuesday’s storm. The weight of the frozen water pulls branches and tips to the ground, distorting the trees into positions that can be dangerous to their health and a hazard to nearby power lines and buildings.

At this point, it’s too soon for arborists and foresters to tell what the extent of the tree damage in Maine will be. But they say the longer the trees stay under ice, the less likely they are to bounce back once there is a thaw.

“The wood fiber itself is going to be frozen,” explained Billy Guess, an arborist at Eagle Aboriculture in Trenton. “If it’s frozen for any length of time, it’s going to stay that way.”

In Maine, 90 percent of the land area is forested, according to John Bott, director of communications at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. In 2011, the value of the sales of forest-based goods in Maine, such as paper and maple syrup, was $5.4 billion and production of such goods accounted for close to 20,000 jobs, according to a report by the North East State Foresters Association.

Those in the business of caring for trees are concerned that ice has now weighed the limbs down for almost four days.

“Looking down, I see where a big oak tree fell into the field,” said Joe Suga from his house. “Pines seem to have taken a beating. As far as what’s going on in the woods, I’m just holding my breath.”

After the ice storm in 1998, many of the Sugas maple trees were destroyed. They are hoping this year’s storm does not bring a repeat of that catastrophe.

Different types of trees will see different levels of damage, arborists say.

Birch trees, whose nimble trunks were bent into arches along Route 95 from Portland to Bangor on Wednesday, will likely stay bent over, but survive.

“They’re just not going to look very good,” Guess said.

Pine trees will likely lose limbs, but also survive.

“Those pine trees are pretty resilient,” said Guess. “They’re just going to shed some limbs and they’ll be fine.”

Ice storms like this one can even be helpful to some tree species, according to the experts.

“A lot of times these ice storms are just mother’s nature way of thinning things out,” said Patty Cormier, a district forester for the Maine Forest Service. “By thinning out some of these weaker trees, you’re going to get new trees coming in.”

But she added that these storms also make healthy trees more vulnerable to long-term problems such as borers that burrow under their bark or rotting that is caused when water gets into a tree’s interior.

A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that trees that were severely injured after the 1998 storm did not grow as well as those that were not damaged.

Residents who are worried about their trees buried under ice should just sit tight for now, arborists say.

“Have patience with the trees,” said Deven Morrill, an arborist at Lucas Tree Experts. He said the best thing to do is to wait until the ice thaws, then have an arborist check the tree for cracks or other defects that could escalate in the next storm.

He added that so far, the effects of this storm do not look as bad as the 1998 storm.

“A lot of times it looks a lot worse right now that it will in another month,” he said. “Many of our trees will rebound.”

Bott said that residents seeking advice about how to care for their trees can call the Bureau of Forestry with questions. Residents who see branches hanging precariously close to power lines should call the power company.

A list of licensed arborists can be found at maine.gov/dacf/php/arborist/ArboristList.shtml.

Tips from Maine Foresters on how to deal with storm damaged trees can be found here: http://www.maine.gov/tools/whatsnew/index.php?topic=Portal+News&id=610998&v=article-2011

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