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Breaking the Fear of Trees

At the 2014 ReLeaf Conference in July at Hofstra University, CCE Nassau County Horticulture Educator Vinnie Drzewucki gave an engaging talk on “Breaking the Fear of Trees: How to Help the Public Overcome their Dendrophobia.” He graciously shares the highlights of his talk below:

By Vinnie Drzewucki
For most of you reading this blog, being afraid of trees is probably just about the strangest thing you’ve ever heard of. Lately, though, I meet many citizens who are afraid of trees.

About this time two and three years ago, Super Storm Sandy and Hurricane Irene hit the New York metropolitan area and Long Island, toppling and uprooting trees and breaking limbs and branches, causing extensive damage to homes, autos, and property, not to mention the flooding of shoreline communities. Both weather events were Category 3 Hurricanes with 100+ mph winds. It was a disaster!

I know, I live a mile from the ocean on the south shore of Long Island. Fortunately, I fared better than most, with no flooding or damage, but many friends and co-workers did not. As I look around now, it’s hard to image the devastation encountered by residents after each event. Nature has begun the healing process, but it needs our help!

Unfortunately, one of the backlashes of going through the experience of these storms is a fear of trees among members of the community. My work as a horticulture and community forestry educator involves daily contact with residents and community leaders.

I often hear their concerns about the safety of trees, the reluctance to plant new trees, especially critically needed larger tree species, to replace those lost in storms and I have even heard of residents determined to cut down every tree on their property, even the healthy ones, just to be on the safe side.

“Dendrophobia” is the term used by professionals to describe an irrational fear of trees, but in this case I can understand the very rational concerns the public has about trees and safety. As I look around my community, I realize it will be hard to replace many of the large, mature trees lost to recent storms.

This only adds to the decline of the tree population and constantly shrinking forest canopy on Long Island.

What can we do about this fear of trees? This question was the inspiration for my workshop presentation, “Breaking the Fear of Trees and Technology: A Little Knowledge Can Be A Dangerous Thing” at last summer’s 2014 annual New York State Releaf Conference, “Standing Up For Long Island’s Urban Forest,” July 17-19, 2014 at Hofstra University, Hempstead, Long Island.

I think the answer is education!

We all need to do a better job at educating the public about the benefits of trees and the realities of tree safety.

Here are a few key points from my presentation:

? Arborists, foresters, and the tree huggers among us know, almost instinctually, all the good things trees do for us. These benefits include environmental, social, and economic paybacks as well as therapeutic and restorative physical and psychological benefits. Today, many of the values that a tree can provide can be quickly and easily calculated by anyone by going to the National Tree Benefits Calculator website at http://www.treebenefits.com. This easy-to-use calculator provides estimated tree benefit measurements in dollars, pounds, kilowatts, and other easy-to-understand terms. Pointing out the facts about the value of trees can help counteract dendrophobia. Besides, it’s just plain fun to use.

? Trees are not designed by nature to sustain 100+ mph winds. At those speeds, even healthy trees can fail. Fortunately, according to the Beaufort Scale, winds over 55 mph, which is when limbs and branches begin to break off, seldom occur over land, and winds higher than 75 mph are considered rare. I like to point out too that after Sandy and Irene, despite those rare extreme wind speeds, although many trees on Long Island were destroyed, most remained standing. Some sustained some limb and branch damage as well as “burned” foliage from windborne, salt-laden mist, but they remain viable in the urban forest.

Fear of trees reality check

? Fatalities caused by trees should be viewed in a rational perspective. Did you know that based on a 10- year average, a person in the U.S. is more likely to be killed in an auto accident (38,000), from food poisoning (3,000), from drowning in a bathtub (341), or from a Jellyfish sting (40), than be killed by a tree (31)? Most tree-related fatalities involve tree care professionals in work-related incidents, a statistic we need to keep working on to get down to zero. I think it’s also important to teach members of our communities about selecting the right tree species, planting trees in the right place, following recommended planting techniques, developing a plant health care program, identifying potentially hazardous situations involving trees, and having a tree risk assessment done by a qualified ISA Certified Arborist periodically. All are important steps for ensuring tree safety.

? Finally, we need to encourage more community pride and advocating for trees in our communities by getting involved, joining the NYS Urban Forestry Council and New York ReLeaf, and spreading the word about programs like the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA and Tree Campus USA programs. These programs not only inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees, they result in continuously increasing paybacks to the community from tree planting projects, developing tree inventories, and tree health care management programs, all of which provide direct benefits to the community.