Category Archives: Natural Resources

Dedication and passion elevate Virginia to second on Champion Trees national register

paperbark maple on Virginia Tech Campus

This paperbark maple outside Hutcheson Hall is one of 13 state champion trees located on the Virginia Tech campus.

Just outside Hutcheson Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, a champion tree hides in plain sight. Its green leaves turn bright scarlet in the fall, and its orange-red bark peels in thin, papery layers. The Acer griseum, more commonly known as paperbark maple, is the largest of its species known to exist in Virginia.

The identification and registration of big trees in Virginia, including 13 on the Virginia Tech campus, is a passion project for Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. Wiseman coordinates the Virginia Big Tree Program, which has been identifying the state’s big trees since 1970.

“Our mission with the Virginia database is twofold: to document the big trees in the state and to advocate for their conservation and care,” said Wiseman, of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “We have a section on our site called ‘Protecting Trees’ that details the three main threats to big trees, which include storms and lightning, construction and soil disturbance, and land development.”

Wiseman’s efforts have recently elevated Virginia into second place on the Champion Tree National Register maintained by American Forests. Virginia’s tally of 88 champion and co-champion trees trails Florida’s 132 trees and ranks just ahead of third-place Texas, with 81 trees.

Virginia is a surprise contender considering its size and level of urbanization. Wiseman notes that the state’s high ranking reflects the hard work of dedicated individuals.

“I like to tout the rankings as an indication and an acclamation for the people in the state who are so passionate about big trees,” Wiseman said. “It’s not so much that Virginia is a bastion of big trees; it’s that we have people who are passionate about big trees and keen to go out and find them.”

Byron Carmean’s passion for finding and documenting big trees truly stands out. Carmean, who earned a horticulture degree at Virginia Tech in 1970, started searching for and documenting big trees in 1983 after seeing the state’s big tree list published in the Virginia Forestry Association’s magazine.

“I started looking down the list with some interest. I’d see one and think, ‘I think I’ve seen one bigger than that.’ I got in touch with Gary Williamson, who was working as a ranger at Northwest River Park in Chesapeake, and he mentioned that he had seen a couple of trees that he thought were very big. We got together and found a winged sumac that became a national champ,” Carmean said.

Carmean’s and Williamson’s contributions to the database are significant: they share credit for 53 of Virginia’s 88 national champion and co-champion trees, and have discovered an additional 269 state champion and co-champion trees. Not content to stay local, their passion for hunting big trees has brought them to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Kentucky, where they have tracked down additional state and national champions. American Forests credits Carmean and Williamson with identifying more national champion and co-champion trees than anyone else in the country.

Carmean’s background in horticulture and tree science has been a boon to his efforts. “It really helps to be familiar with the big tree list and what is big for each species of tree,” he said. “What’s big for a dogwood wouldn’t be comparable to what’s big for a maple or an oak, so you need to have a deep knowledge of trees.”

Three factors go into measuring a tree: trunk circumference, tree height, and the average spread of the tree’s crown. While some trees require specialized tools to accurately assess a tree’s score, most can be measured using a yardstick and a 100-foot measuring tape.

Big tree hunting can be done anywhere. While enthusiasts like Carmean and Williamson enjoy hiking through unexplored forests, many Virginia state and national champion trees grow in city centers, on college campuses, and at historically significant sites like Arlington National Cemetery, Monticello, and Montpelier.

Wisemen notes that big tree enthusiasts find a variety of avenues to their passion. “For Byron Carmean and Gary Williamson, they like the thrill of the hunt. For others, it is the cultural and historical ties with the trees that fascinate them, that sense of connecting a tree to moments in history.”

When asked what continues to inspire his passion, Wiseman said, “As a certified arborist for over 20 years, I think I’m drawn to the trees on an individual level. Because I understand tree anatomy and physiology, I have an appreciation for the fact that these gigantic organisms can live for so long. And I get excited about the mathematics of it. Sometimes trees are straightforward to measure, but other times you have to incorporate some heavy-duty geometry and trigonometry to figure out how to score them.”

The Virginia Big Trees website has information about how to measure and report big trees, as well as a comprehensive database detailing Virginia’s current state and national champions. To ensure that the Virginia Big Tree database is up-to-date and accurate, all trees need to be recertified every 10 years. This process includes verifying that the tree is still alive, identifying any threats to its well-being, and assessing whether a tree’s score should be adjusted. The program is always looking for volunteers for recertification efforts; interested individuals should visit the website for more information.

— Written by Krista Timney

Share

Chainsaw Safety – before and after the storm

Someone once said the only difference between a Colt 45 pistol and a chainsaw is that anyone can buy and operate a chainsaw. No license is required; there is no test to take, class to complete, or competency to demonstrate. The similarity is that both can kill or injury in a split second. This is particularly evident after a storm.

When looking at chainsaw accident reports, a definite spike follows storms. This isn’t so much because of the difficult timber salvage or yard-tree cleanup situations loggers or tree-workers have to work in after a storm, but because of ill-equipped and untrained occasional users doing their own clean-up.

If you own a chain saw, chances are you’ve never received training on safe chainsaw use. Maybe you’ve read the safety manual that is supposed to come with a new saw purchase, maybe you haven’t. Additionally, you probably didn’t purchase the appropriate personal protective equipment, which, frankly, should be part and parcel with a saw purchase.

Using a saw is like anything else: get dressed for the job. I cringe watching the news after a storm has toppled trees. I have yet to see a do-it-yourselfer appropriately dressed. Often it seems they’ve made a special effort to dress dangerously, like in shorts and flip-flops.

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT

Head, eye, and ear protection is essential. You might be surprised to know that a significant portion of chainsaw-related accidents don’t actually involve direct saw injury. It doesn’t take much of a branch from overhead to kill someone. Hard hats have prevented many deaths and would have prevented many more if everyone put one on before they pick up a saw.

Eye protection should be obvious. An interruption to your work is the best-case scenario, worst case, you lose your sight. It’s not just sawdust, either. Branches of fallen trees are often under tremendous stress that, when released, can hit you in your face or other areas with tremendous force.

Ear protection is often neglected, but not until regretted years later. Ear loss is cumulative in nature and permanent. If you’ve ever experienced a ringing in your ears after a day of working around something loud, that’s a symptom of permanent hearing loss. With a chainsaw, it’s not only what you hear in the engine, but what you don’t hear. The metal on metal as chain moves around bar produces a high-pitch that human ears cannot hear, but still does damage.

Next is to protect the mostly likely place to be in direct contact with the chainsaw, your legs. Chaps or chainsaw-resistant pants are made with ballistic nylon or Kevlar, and they are as effective at stopping a moving chain as they are at stopping bullets. People complain about chaps being too hot … I guess the choice is yours, sweat or blood. If you get off with just needing stitches, consider yourself lucky. If you cut the femoral artery running on the inside of your leg straight to your heart, chose your steps carefully because you only have about 15 of them left.

The next item is proper footwear. At a minimum, good, sturdy boots should be worn. Even better is to wear steel-toed or chainsaw-resistant boots. Absolutely no tennis shoes, flip-flops, sandals, or running shoes!

The most important piece of safety equipment is your brain. Accidents are much more likely to happen when you are hurried, fatigued, or otherwise not thinking clearly. Make sure you are well rested, clear-minded, and not rushed when using a power saw. A good mind and the personal protective equipment outlined above will give you every advantage should an accident happen.

THE SAW

Today’s saws are more powerful, lighter, faster, safer, and more ergonomic than saws of yesteryear. Anti-vibration, brakes, and guards are some of the newer features vastly improved upon in the past decade. Less vibration results in less fatigue, and less fatigue means fewer accidents.

Halfway decent saws have a chain-brake built into them that is activated by a sudden change in motion or by the wrist coming into contact with the brake lever, such as might happen with kickback. This brake is meant to be used. Anytime you take more than two steps, engage the brake to avoid accidental chain acceleration.

The guards on a saw are to stop the chain from whipping you in the event it breaks. That’s a good thing considering there is no getting out of the way of something just a few feet from you that’s moving at 200 mph and lined with razor-sharp teeth.

Speaking of razor-sharp teeth, a sharp and well-running saw is safer than something you have to fight with to get the same amount of work done. Keep your saw in good running order and know how to sharpen your chain or keep an extra one on hand in the event you run the saw into the dirt or otherwise dull the teeth. A dull chain is exhausting.

OPERATION

Once you’ve got on the right garb, and the saw is in tip-top shape, it’s time to get to work. Most people start their saws in an unsafe and tiresome way that can also be hard on the saw. The “drop-start” is an old favorite, but a good way to break the rope, wear out your upper body, and get hurt by a live machine you only have one hand on. Proper starting sets the saw on the ground, with one foot on the hand guard and one hand on the upper grip, and pulls on the rope.

Secondly, don’t work from a ladder and don’t saw overhead. If you have stuff to cut that is higher than your shoulders, consider getting a professional involved. Ladders and saws just don’t work together, and trying to use a saw over your head is asking for trouble.

The first power saws required two men to operate because of their weight, and you would never have lifted them over your shoulder. Even though today’s saws don’t require two operators and they are easily lifted overhead, it’s a good idea to have a buddy around. If something happens, you might not be able to get the help you need by yourself. If nothing happens, you’ll get the job done more quickly anyway.

Chainsaw are extremely useful and powerful tools. They need to be respected every time they are used. Proper attire and intelligent operation goes a long way toward safe and enjoyable use. Again, use your brain. A big part of this is to know and respect your limits. There is something macho about using a saw which can be an impediment to good judgment. It’s more macho to be in one piece at the end of the day rather than a hospital bed or worse. Be careful; be smart.

Written by Adam K. Downing
Extension Agent, Forestry & Natural Resources
Virginia Cooperative Extension

Share

Storm Damage: Forests and Trees

High winds and saturated soils can result in damage to forest and yard trees. With Hurricane Florence approaching Virginia and the Carolina’s, you may be wondering what to do.

Let’s talk about trees in a forest first. Natural disasters such as hurricanes are a natural part of the environment. In many cases, if the forest is otherwise healthy and vigorous, damage may be limited to isolated pockets. In some cases, however, extensive damage may result in financial loss, hazardous situations, and heartache at seeing your forest dramatically changed.

If, after the storm, you feel you have significant damage to your forest, your first call should be to your local Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) office. They can provide preliminary assessments of loss and advise you on clean-up and/or salvage operations. These numbers may be useful when tax season rolls around to be able to claim casualty loss.

Timber salvage may be appropriate if you have high value timber on the ground or significantly damage standing timber. This option can help minimize financial loss and make the woods safer after the storm has passed. A storm damaged woodlot is very dangerous and should only be entered with extreme caution, proper protection gear, and with experience. Even within the first year, hazards from fallen trees can make your forest a dangerous place.

If you have damage to trees in your yard, some of the same principals apply, such as the need to determine the amount of damage and put a dollar value on it. The best way to determine the decrease in the fair market value of the property is with a complete appraisal. The fees for this are deductible under expenses incurred to determine tax liability. In some cases, clean-up, repair, and replacement costs on the damaged landscape may also be used. You should also review a copy of your homeowners insurance to know what your coverage is.

In terms of repairing the damage to your landscape, safety is again of utmost importance. The first thing many people do is grab the chain saw. If you only have small branches (4” or less), use lopping shears and hand saws instead. An injury is the last thing you need after a disaster has hit, and most chain saw injuries happen to fatigued homeowners.

If you decide to use a power saw, wear proper protective equipment (eye protection, ear protection, hardhat, non-slip gloves, chain saw pants or chaps, heavy-duty boots, and trim- fitting clothes). Before starting the saw, make sure the chain is sharp (less tiring to use), and the saw is properly fueled and oiled. To start the saw, place it firmly on the ground with chain break engaged, one foot in the handle (if possible), one hand on the top of the handle, and pull the starter cord firmly with the other hand. “Drop starting” is the most dangerous way to start your saw. Do not do it!

While cutting, make sure you have firm footing, don’t reach above your shoulder to cut, saw with the lower part of the bar close to the bumper, not on the top near the nose, and avoid kickback by keeping the tip (upper ¼) of the blade free from twigs, branches and other debris.

Damage to small trees can often be easily corrected. Newly planted trees or shrubs, which are tilted, may be reset and staked. You may trim partially damaged trees or shrubs with proper pruning equipment and practices (go to https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/ for information on pruning and other landscape practices). If some plants are beyond repair, complete removal may be necessary. Deciduous trees and shrubs, however, will often sprout back in the spring if a clean cut is made close to the ground. Otherwise, you may want to use the opportunity to replace the plant with something different.

Lastly, extensive landscape damage sometimes necessitates the use of heavy equipment. As much as possible, don’t allow heavy equipment to move close to the trunks of remaining shrubs or trees, for the resulting root damage will cause loss in the coming years.

No matter if your trees are part of a forest or your landscape, it is very important to keep records! Inventories that might be part of a forest management plan can be very useful in determining base values of forestland. Recent pictures of your mature landscaping might be important to verify “before damage” value. Keep receipts and copies of newspaper articles as evidence of the causality.

In closing, count your blessing if the only thing damaged in this year’s storms can be tallied with dollar signs. Trees and shrubs can be replanted, a forest will regenerate, and houses can be rebuilt, but a life lost cannot be recovered. Be safe and help others.

Written by Adam K. Downing
Extension Agent, Forestry & Natural Resources
Virginia Cooperative Extension

Share

Virginia Master Naturalist chapter publishes guide to the state’s poisonous plants

pokeweek

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is one of the poisonous plants highlighted in the new guidebook. Photo by Brenda Clements Jones, Old Rag Chapter, Virginia Master Naturalists.

Just in time for the summer months when more people venture into the outdoors — and come into contact with poison ivy and other plants that are best avoided — there is a new reference guide to some of Virginia’s poisonous plants.

The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Master Naturalist Program and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“This project is the first of its kind in a couple of ways. It’s the first publication of its kind focused on poisonous plants in Virginia, and it was a totally volunteer-driven effort,” said Michelle Prysby, statewide coordinator of the Virginia Master Naturalist Program and Extension associate for Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The core group of volunteers who produced the guide was led by Alfred Goossens of the Old Rag Master Naturalists chapter, which serves Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Madison, Orange, and Rappahannock counties. He saw the need for the project owing to the high incidence of contacts with poisonous plants, many of which land people in emergency rooms, a fact he confirmed with the director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center.

Recent reports that the noxious giant hogweed had been spotted in Clarke County, Virginia, which was confirmed by Virginia Tech researchers, has raised additional interest in poisonous plants. Goossens had already planned to include giant hogweed in the publication, as he was familiar with it having grown up in Holland.

Once Goossens enlisted the support of his chapter members, the project took about two years to complete. Volunteers settled on the format, wrote the data sheets for the individual plants, and contributed photographs. There was also a peer-review process to ensure the accuracy of the material.

In addition to Prysby’s support, Senior Extension Agent Adam Downing wrote one of the data sheets and leveraged his connections to help with the publication. “This project will benefit many Virginians by informing them of the realistic hazards with our key poisonous plants,” he said. “We don’t want to cause alarm, but do want people to be able to enjoy the outdoors by being better informed of a few plants to notice and treat appropriately.”

In order to ensure that people remain aware of which plants to watch for, Goossens is also working with Master Naturalist chapters across the state on a second edition of the guide that will include additional poisonous species.

“Now it’s a Virginia project. It changed from just the Piedmont to all of Virginia because people all over the state need this info,” Goossens said.

“The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia,” publication number CNRE-13NP, is available as a downloadable pdf file at the Virginia Cooperative Extension website (ext.vt.edu). For more information on the project, contact the team at socratesormn@gmail.com.

– Written by Krista Timney

Share

Virginia Tech scientists who identified dangerous Giant Hogweed in Clarke County hopeful that it will be contained

Corey Childs and Giant Hogweed

Corey Childs, an Extension agent housed in Warren County in the northern Shenandoah Valley, visited the Clarke County site Monday to collect Giant Hogweed samples for the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech researchers who helped identify the dangerous Giant Hogweed plants in Clarke County, Virginia, want residents to stay on the lookout for the plant with toxic sap that can cause severe burns — but also stressed that the weeds are believed to have been planted intentionally decades ago and haven’t spread in the years since.

“It’s a dangerous plant but I’m not overly concerned about it. This seems to be an isolated incident,” said Virginia Tech’s Michael Flessner, an assistant professor and extension weed science specialist.

Giant Hogweed is a Tier 1 Noxious Weed in Virginia and should be reported to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Prior to last week it had not been confirmed in the state. Flessner worked with Jordan Metzgar, curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech, and Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Mark Sutphin to identify the plant last week.

Property owners who think they spot Giant Hogweed should not panic, Metzgar said. He stressed that Giant Hogweed, with its white, umbrella-shaped-flower clusters, looks very similar in appearance to cow parsnip, a plant that’s widespread and native to Virginia. Giant Hogweed can grow to be up to 14 feet tall while cow parsnip is generally shorter.

Cow parsnip can also cause a mild skin rash but isn’t nearly as dangerous as Giant Hogweed.

Anyone who suspects they have found Giant Hogweed should take photos, check online to compare the plant to photos, and then contact a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

No one should mow or use a weed trimmer to remove either Giant Hogweed or cow parsnip without wearing proper covering and safety gear, Flessner said.

Giant Hogweed is found in a number of other states, primarily to the north of Virginia.

Share