Bear and Melissa LeVangie spent much of their childhood aloft, in a then-forested area of Massachusetts. “Our mother would say, I don’t want to see you until it is dark,” said Bear LeVangie. “We would climb an 80-foot — it seemed like a 100-foot then — white pine and hang out and not think twice about it.”
The twins still spend much of their time in and around trees: Both are arborists, which is akin to being tree doctors. Both are seeing a surge in demand for arborists because the region’s trees are faring so poorly.
“I would never have anticipated how fast things are declining,” said Melissa LeVangie, who works for Shelter Tree, a tree care supply company, and is tree warden, or caretaker, for the town of Petersham in central Massachusetts.
As climate change accelerates, the trees in the Eastern forests of the United States are increasingly vulnerable. For many arborists, the challenges facing trees are reshaping and expanding the nature of their work. Many said they are spending more time on tree removal than ever before — taking down dead or unhealthy trees, or trees damaged or felled by storms.
“We are a heavily treed state,” said Kristina Bezanson, an arborist and a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We are having more tree problems that require lots of arborists, and there is a shortage of arborists.”
Many New England towns are verdant, and the area is roughly 75 percent forest — forests that have generally grown back twice, after clearing by colonists for agriculture and after logging for timber in the early 1900s. To the untrained eye, it looks good: lots of green.
Not to the trained eye.
To spend time with tree experts is to remove one’s green-tinted glasses and to see Oz as it really is. Many species — including ash, oak, maple, hemlock, elm, and white pine — have their own particular pest or disease threatening them. And there are more pests and diseases on the horizon, including insects like the spotted lanternfly and infections that weakened trees cannot fight off.
Many trees are also stressed by bouts of drought or intense rain, by rising temperatures and changing season length, by extreme weather — by all the various manifestations of climate change — as well as by air pollution and by invasive plants choking or displacing them. The list of threats is long, synergistic, and growing rapidly, which means that trees do not have sufficient time to recover and adapt.
Even a quick tour of a New England-picturesque town common can reveal a lot about the deteriorating condition of the region’s trees. On a morning in late summer, the LeVangies inspected several trees in Petersham, where, since 2014, Melissa LeVangie has been warden — a position every municipality in Massachusetts has been required to have since 1899. When she can’t make it, her twin checks on the trees. Bear LeVangie works for Eversource, traveling a circuit of 35 towns in Connecticut, overseeing trimming and pruning crews and looking for “hazard trees,” including those that are dead or dying.
The two spent a long time with a maple they estimated was about 150 years old. It had two species of decay fungi blooming on its trunk, but Melissa LeVangie had decided to not cut it down. “What I am doing is allowing it to have a slow death and have it be part of our community for as long as it can,” she said.
“It is important to cherish trees, even in their decline. They are our elders,” Bear LeVangie said.
They visited an ash being treated for emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that has killed tens of millions of trees, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Bear LeVangie flipped over a leaf. More trouble: tussock moth larvae and two other pests.
They visited an oak that had put on scant growth this season, likely because of the drought. Now over four months long, the drought has led to increased wildland fire risk across the state.
And they visited a young maple with red and yellow leaves. “People look at that and say ‘Oh look, fall is coming early, it is going to be a colorful fall!’ No. This is happening early because the trees are very stressed out,” said Bear LeVangie.
“If you get an arborist talking, watch out,” said Ron Yaple of Race Mountain Tree Services in Sheffield, Mass. “We have a lot on our minds.” His team is booked months in advance, he said. He pointed inside his company’s warehouse-like garage, where a bucket truck and other specialized vehicles were parked. “I have the equipment for a second crew,” he said. “But not the people.”
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