Highway agencies' tree cutting raises practical questions

Joe Frassetta, Pennsylvania's southeastern district forester, stands with some felled trees along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Joe Frassetta, Pennsylvania's southeastern district forester, stands with some felled trees along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (SANDY BAUERS / Staff)
Posted: August 15, 2011

Along a stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that Joe Frassetta drives every day, he used to see trees.

Many were oaks, tall and lush. At 70 or more years old, they were in the prime of middle age.

Now, he sees tree-cutting equipment. And stumps, two feet in diameter, that tell him how healthy the trees were.

In a scene familiar across the country, highway officials are cutting down trees, and someone is upset about it.

But now it's not just a case of tree huggers mourning lost beauty. Some experts see a growing awareness of the environmental benefits of trees. A tree can absorb 4,000 gallons of stormwater runoff a year. It takes in carbon dioxide, a key factor in climate change.

Many homeowners value trees for sound buffering. New Jersey has "no net loss" laws requiring that when forested areas are cut as part of a state project - a highway, say - replacement trees are planted elsewhere.

Frassetta is Pennsylvania's southeastern district forester. He has watched the cutting along this Berks County stretch since spring. "The trees they cut down, it broke my heart," he said.

But the Turnpike Commission, like most highway officials, is pretty much unapologetic about the loss of the trees.

"We don't hate trees," spokesman Carl DeFebo said. "Our primary concern is . . . safety."

The problem with trees is that they drop limbs. They fall. On a high-speed highway, if a car runs off the road and a tree is in the way, the car - and the driver - is often the loser.

The Federal Highway Administration says trees are the most commonly struck objects in serious roadside crashes. They account for more than 4,000 fatalities and 100,000 injuries a year.

In most cases, where safety and trees clash, the trees come down. "It's a command-and-control relationship," said Kathleen L. Wolf, a University of Washington forestry social scientist who studies how people relate to trees.

What highway engineers have not come to reckon with, "and, believe me, I've tried, is the tremendous body of science that demonstrates the array of benefits trees provide," Wolf said.

Across the river, trees have been cleared as part of widening projects along three major highways - the New Jersey Turnpike north of Exit 6 in Burlington County, the Garden State Parkway from Somers Point to Toms River, and the Atlantic City Expressway.

All have sparked rancor.

But because of New Jersey's "no net loss" law, reforestation plans for the three projects have been submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection. The approved turnpike plan calls for new trees on-site and a payment of $14.2 million to the DEP for tree planting. The other two plans are in review.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike project encompasses a seven-mile stretch near the Morgantown interchange.

The highway isn't being widened, just repaved, but most of the trees - with the exception of some that provide a buffer for nearby homes - back to the fence line are being removed. The area encompasses 39 acres, and the removal cost is $17,248 an acre, or a total of $672,672.

Turnpike engineer Gary Graham contends that far from being too aggressive, the commission has been lax. When the turnpike was finished in 1940, there were no trees in the right of way. Now, they have grown. And some will have to be removed. "We're just getting into this," he said.

Highway officials can cite any number of additional ills related to highway trees.

In summer, their lush growth blocks signs. In fall, their leaves clog drains. In winter, their shade makes it harder to battle road ice. They obscure sight lines, making it hard for drivers to spot deer.

Maintenance is costly. "It's a lot easier for me to send a guy out to mow grass that it is to send a guy up to prune branches," DeFebo said.

But Frassetta doesn't agree that all of the trees cut were a safety hazard or a nuisance - not the ones well back from the road, or up hills.

Indeed, he said, edge trees like the ones being cut down are stronger than the trees in the middle of a wooded area because of the growing conditions. So by cutting the edge trees, the commission might actually increase the possibility that more trees will come down, he said.

He wants more of a tree-by-tree approach instead of the clear-cutting he sees.

He can't understand how a state with such active tree-planting programs - from Treevitalize in this region to the multitude of trees planted to improve water quality of Chesapeake Bay tributaries - can be so ruthless with trees on its highways.

He thinks the new grassy roadside will actually attract deer and groundhogs - like the one he almost ran over recently - because that's what they eat.

Also, as irate residents pointed out at a recent meeting about the Garden State Parkway project, on highways with a median, trees can block the lights from oncoming cars.

Wolf thinks the safety risks of trees are exaggerated. One of her graduate students analyzed federal crash data and concluded that tree crashes are just 2 percent of the total.

"I'm very careful not to deny that safety is an issue. There is . . . incredible personal sorrow," she said. "But there is a certain level of risk every time we get into a car."

The cause of most accidents is driver behavior, "not trees running into the road," Wolf said. "How do you enforce people not being on their phones? Not being drunk? Not being fatigued?"

Perhaps nowhere is the debate - trees vs. highway safety - more vividly juxtaposed than in southwestern Connecticut, along the Merritt Parkway.

This 37-mile highway is a National Scenic Byway and one of the few highways on the National Register of Historic Places.

Trees are big along the Merritt, and the goal is to keep it that way.

But at what cost? In an eight-year period between 1985 and 1992, collisions with "fixed objects" - half of them trees - represented 85 percent of fatal accidents.

Select tree removals ensued and have continued. But accidents and fatalities still happen.

Pruning has been expensive. "If you had to do that on every state road, we would be completely and utterly broke," said state Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick.

Then again, if officials removed every tree that could fall along every highway, "it would leave a path of destruction that would be visible from space," Nursick said.

Wolf hopes to see more common ground - partly because public spaces can no longer be dedicated to a single use, as in "that's our right-of-way and it's dedicated to safety," she said. Nature now has to multitask.

There are glimmers. The Federal Highway Administration is preparing a report on landscaping policies that have accommodated safety and trees.

Frassetta said he thinks there should be more conversation about how to better manage highway trees. He called the Turnpike Commission to voice his concern and offer his help, but "they seemed to completely tune me out."

"That's a lot of biomass they're taking down," he said.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace

 

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