The bark beetle epidemic that threatens to take 80 percent of the ponderosa pines that are the hallmark of the Mogollon Rim has spawned a new industry.
As property owners throughout Rim country are making the tough decision to cut down the dead, infested trees in hopes of saving the few healthy ones that remain, it seems any do-it-yourselfer with a chain saw is suddenly in the tree-cutting business.
Carpenter turned tree-cutter Ray Stephens dropped 350 trees in just one week in the 36-acre subdivision of Strawberry Hollow at the north end of Pine.
“It looks like a war zone. These used to be lots with a lot of trees on them,” he said on a tour of the subdivision.
“I do not like emptying the forest, but someone has to,” he said.
Stephens carries $2 million in liability insurance to cover himself and the homeowners for whom he is working.
“One in every 100 trees will do something strange (when you cut it down),” he said.
For that reason, Stephens opts for safety first, and recommends homeowners interview a few potential cutters, making sure to ask detailed questions.
Just a few of the important questions:
- Are they going to remove the trees?
- What type of equipment will be used?
- And do they carry insurance?
The first question most property owners are pondering is: Should I remove the trees now or wait?
Dead trees cause many problems, Stephens said. “If we get a heavy, wet snowfall, these dry brittle trees will break and fall into the homes. Most homeowners insurance will not pay for damage from a dead tree. If property owners wait to down a tree, the cost will only escalate. The drier and more brittle a tree becomes, the harder it is to cut down,” he said.
Stephens wears climbing gear, leg braces with 4-inch spikes situated at the instep and a 3-inch wide leather belt that will support all of his weight while scaling a tree.
Not all dead trees can be climbed, Stephens said. If it cannot be climbed, property owners will pay for a crane to bring it down. If they are dead, the sooner they come down, the cheaper and safer it will be.
“We went to school to study dead so we know these trees are dead,” Dale Knighton, friend and laborer said of the trees targeted for the day.
The trees Stephens is taking down on this sunny December day were carefully protected during the building process and are close enough to the homes that Stephens is required to tie a rope as high up the tree as possible.
“The higher the rope, the better mechanical advantage we have,” he said.
The other end of the rope is attached to his truck creating tension and a definite direction for the tree to fall.
“I use a real stretchy nylon rope so it is like a rubber band,” he explained. As the tension builds and the tree begins to fall, the rope is still retracting keeping the tree going in the right direction.
To guide the tree in the right direction a larch notch or ‘V’ cut is made about 2 feet from the ground on the side that Stephens wants the tree to fall. He then cuts a steep diagonal cut on the opposite side.
Starting about one foot above the notch, he powers the chain saw to meet the notch while his helper begins to pull with the pickup. Sure enough, in less than 60 seconds, a 75-foot pine tree slams to the ground without damage or injury.
The physics of it all seems simple enough, but if not applied correctly, the operation could spell disaster for a homeowner, or worse, injury to a chain saw operator.
By 10 a.m., Stephens had scaled 15 trees, going 20 to 25 feet in the air.
Taking his time to get the job done right with no damage is his priority. Saturday, he took down more than 75 trees that were nowhere near a structure.
According to Stephens, options to property owners that affect the cost include who trims the limbs off the trees, hauls the wood and what happens to the logs.
If you have a lot of landscaping on your property, you will want to ask what kind and size of equipment a cutter may use. For example, a four-wheeler may have less impact than a backhoe.
Either way Stephens suggests property owners err on the side of caution.
IPS PINE BARK BEETLE
WHAT IT IS
Over 2,000 species of bark beetles, which are also known as engraver beetles, have been identified. The one that affects the ponderosa pines in this area is often referred to as the ips bark beetle. Its scientific name is Ips paraconfusus.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
“It’s about the size of a match head, and it’s shiny black to dark brown in color,” said Forest Health Specialist Bob Celaya of the Arizona State Land Department. “A distinguishing feature is a noticeable depression at the rear end which is bordered on each side with three to six tooth-like spines.”
HOW IT OPERATES
Both the male and female ips bore into a tree and form an egg chamber. The spines are used to push red sawdust out of the tree as they go.
After the eggs hatch, the larvae bore out from the chamber, forming a series of tunnels.
THE DAMAGE IT DOES
The early indications that a tree might be infested include piles of red sawdust at the base of the tree and soft pink to reddish-colored pitch tubes about one-quarter inch in diameter in the top one-third of larger trees. The damage starts in the top, or crown, of the tree and then works its way down, eventually killing the tree.