Falling Down

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Northsider attempting to replenish disappearing trees

Greenwood Cemetery’s typically serene atmosphere was disturbed recently by the sounds of chainsaws and other heavy equipment.

Crews had descended on the historic site to remove a 100-year-old oak tree, on the advice of experts.

That tree represented one of numerous that have come down in recent years in Jackson and on the Northside, as they succumb to age, overly wet soils and erratic weather.

In some cases, the trees fall on their own, while in others, the trees are taken down to prevent them from falling onto homes and property.

Either way, one man doesn’t want to sit idly by and watch the slow loss of the area’s tree canopy - what he calls one of the Northside’s most valuable assets.

Instead, William Smith hopes to galvanize his fellow Northsiders to plant new trees, to ensure the area has a nice, dense canopy for years to come.

“Most of the trees have reached their maximum height and are getting on,” he said. “I haven’t seen any planting, but I’ve seen a lot of trees cut down.

“I’ve had some cut down myself. A pine, that was 65 years old, and an oak. I hated to do it, but they were ready to fall.”

The Ridgeover resident hopes to host a community meeting early next year to gauge interest in the plan. 

No location or date had been set, but Smith, a retired Presbyterian minister, is shooting for some time after the holiday season.

Donna Beliech, with the Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension Service in Rankin County, supports the idea.

“Why wouldn’t you want to? Statistically, people gravitate to neighborhoods that have trees compared to ones that don’t,” she said. “They increase property values and make it more enjoyable to be outside in general.”

Having large trees and landscaping can increase property values between three and 20 percent, according to Arbor Day Foundation stats. The towering plants can also reduce energy costs, the foundation’s website states.

Smith has loved trees all of his life. As a single pastor in his 20s, he purchased a 75-acre tract of land near Alexandria, La. Since then, he has harvested the pines a few times, but has always replanted.

Later, he and his wife, Rosanne, experienced the Brazilian rainforest firsthand, as a missionary in the South American country.

The couple moved their Ridgeover Place home about 25 years ago. The two were attracted to the area, in part, because of the neighborhood’s large tree canopy.

They bought the house years earlier and rented it until they retired. Prior to Smith’s retirement, the two spent a year in Jackson while on furlough. “We ... got to know it and liked it,” he said.

The couple’s backyard boasts an elevated wooden deck that is surrounded by trees and vegetation, including black locust, azaleas, and others, which have become a haven for songbirds.

Behind that a neighbor owns a large wooded lot, covered in pines and hardwood.

The trees have been there for 50, 60 years or longer. Smith notes several trees on his neighbor’s lot have fallen and at least one other pine in his neighborhood  was beginning to lean over, an ominous sign that it could be ready to fall.

“Everything that has been planted has to come to an end of its life,” said Russell Bourland, with TriCounty Tree Service. “Northeast Jackson is a forest. You see 120-foot-tall pine trees everywhere. They’re not going to get much taller.”

Stephen Dicke, an arborist and former professor with the MSU Extension Service,  said the trees are coming down, in part, because of advanced age.

“The big tree plantings in Jackson were in the 1940s and 50s. For some species, like water oak, that’s about their lifespan,” he said. “We have a lot of water oaks planted in the Jackson area, and they’re all old.”

The tree removed last week at Green Oak, for example, was 100 years old and beginning to fail.

“The top broke off from wind damage and it was beginning to rot,” he said. “The (grave markers) under it are historic and we couldn’t allow parts of it to die and drop on them.”

Along with age, many local trees are also succumbing to environmental factors ranging from erratic weather to unstable soil conditions.

Jackson experienced extreme droughts in 2015 and 2016, followed by wetter-than-normal conditions in 2018 and 2019.

According to NOAA, the state experienced “extreme” and “moderate” droughts in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

Meanwhile, 2018 was the state’s second-wettest year on record, with 75.72 inches of precipitation reported. Through November 6, 56.84 inches of rain had fallen, nearing the annual average of 59.23 inches with just about two months to go.

Without water, trees shut down because they are unable to make food through photosynthesis. With too much water, local soils become unstable. That unstable soil, coupled with strong winds from thunderstorms, create the perfect conditions for trees to fall.

“When the soil is wet it is very easily moveable. You can step in it and leave a footprint. You can drive through it and leave a rut,” Dicke explained. “We saw this after Katrina. The soil got wet and the wind blew hard. The tree stems didn’t fail. The roots didn’t fail. The soil did.”

In 2017, several oaks in Fondren fell as a result of wet soils and stronger-than-usual winds.

Man-made factors also contribute. Repairing water and sewer lines, building sidewalks and cutting trenches can damage existing root systems.

“New sidewalks, new driveways, all those things within 10 feet of a tree can be very devastating. It’s not just their health causing them to fall over, but the entire soil-root complex is failing.”

According to Dicke, once root rot sets in, old trees may be able to maintain themselves health-wise, but a strong root system can never be reestablished.

Dicke recommends several steps to maintain the existing tree population, including watering trees in droughts and hiring arborists to service trees on an annual basis.

To replace the trees that have already died, Smith and Beliech say planting is the answer. For his part, Smith would like to see more sycamores and sweet gums - trees that provide shade in the summer and let light in during the winter.

Beliech recommends laurel oaks, willow oaks and cherry bark oaks - all that would easily live to be 100. She said red maples are also a good, hearty tree that would do well in the metro area. “If you’re going with maple, we do try and promote the red maple. There were some genetic crosses of maples that were popular for people to buy. But they’re not as well suited for summer.”

No date has been set for the Smith’s meeting yet. “I know that people have a lot on them this season coming up, so I don’t want to have it until after,” he said. “It would be in 2020, early next year.”

However he is inviting anyone interested in meeting or helping to contact him via email.

For more information, contact Smith at wss@JAMengineering.com.

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