Has tree removal become an easier sell?

Features - Maintenance

Agronomics, safety, playability, views and reduced maintenance costs. Calculated communication and research should create a strong case for clearing the wrong skyward hazards.

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October 5, 2021

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Superintendent Tim Johnston and his grounds crew at Wedgewood Country Club in Stowe, Massachusetts, have been quite busy the past few years with their normal agronomy duties as well as with an ambitious tree removal program.

“In my six years at Wedgewood, my assistant, my owner and I have removed over 660 trees,” says Johnston, adding that the labor-intensive work is executed in-house. “On a good day, we could average about eight tree removals and that is eight to 10 hours of back-breaking labor.”

Most of the tree work has been and continues to be strictly for turf health. “But there have also been several removed for new projects such as our ninth green expansion and a new chipping area,” Johnston adds.

© courtesy of David Oatis

The trees being removed have consisted of hardwood and pine. Explains Johnston, “We are fortunate enough to have a mini excavator, tilt trailer, grapple bucket and stump grinder on property, which makes felling and cleanup a bit easier.”

Architect Mark Mungeam, who designed the club’s green expansion and chipping area, “pinpointed exactly” which trees to remove, Johnston says. “Opening sunlight and airflow windows, thus reducing root competition, has been crucial to providing top-notch playing conditions.”

A side benefit of the project is that the club has been able to sell the wood to members, friends and the community. “Pine logs, which typically haunt a golf course dump site for years,” were “unloaded” to local mill yards, Johnston says.

“Membership has been extremely understanding of the tree removal program,” he adds. “Sunlight windows for us turn into golf shot windows for them. We’ve opened some beautiful vistas that highlighted holes and even changed the way some holes are played. Most of the areas have turned into manageable rough, but we have also let some areas naturalize with fescues.”

Mungeam has nothing against trees. “I love seeing trees. I love courses where the holes are separated by trees. I appreciate their shade, beauty and contrast,” he says. “But there are many courses that are cluttered with too many trees, have trees that negatively impact turf health or have trees that have become too big and impact play.” In those situations, he believes, trees should be removed.

Mungeam says there are “multiple” reasons for tree removal, including:

  • Improving turf conditions and health by reducing shade and increasing airflow
  • Eliminating a potential safety issue when trees are damaged or in poor health
  • Restoring corridor width where trees have grown in and made a hole too narrow
  • Improving vistas across the course or of adjacent features
  • Restoring strategic elements that may have been lost by past tree plantings
  • Reducing maintenance costs

Regarding that last reason listed above, Mungeam says trees can add considerable expense to the maintenance budget because of leaf removal and disposal. “There is blowing leaves and cleanup after wind events, a reduction in rough mowing efficiency, the labor involved in hand-mowing or string-trimming around each tree, damage to paths and drainage systems from root intrusion and an increase in chemical applications due to shade or reduced airflow.”

Tree “competition” around greens and tees can be “very problematic”, according to architect Robert McNeil, cause long-term issues with turf and limit the ability to sustain turf quality in these areas. “One other area that doesn’t usually take priority when planning is along cart paths,” he says. “Root growth over time can break up asphalt or concrete cart paths.”

One of the key reasons to consider tree removal, says McNeil, is “agronomic enhancement.” He explains, “Trees, though aesthetically pleasing and providing a natural environmental cooling mechanism, can be impediments to growing healthy golf turf.” Root, shade and nutrient competition from trees “too close” to greens, fairways and tees will cause a superintendent “great angst” when trying to grow and maintain turf in these critical areas. “Usually, that means more water, more fertilizer, more fungicide, etc. to win the battle. It should be noted that some shade through the middle (hottest) parts of the day is beneficial, providing a cooling effect on the turf.”

The best time to complete tree work if it involves removal or pruning would be in the late fall and winter months. “During this time the ground is more firm for equipment to reach the work and leaves have already fallen to lessen the amount of cleanup required,” McNeil says. Play is also likely dramatically reduced, lessening the effect on daily operations and reducing any safety issues with players roaming the course.

Experts say that some tree removal projects may be done in-house. It all depends on the abilities of the staff, the equipment available and the complexity of the work. Small trees or even larger trees that are not proximate to high-value amenities (greens, tees and structures) can be removed in-house. More complex projects requiring careful removals close to amenities or neighboring properties will require a specialty tree management firm to be used, McNeil says. “Many firms now have very technical equipment that can remove and dispose of large trees and remove or grind out stumps very efficiently, saving clubs a lot of time and money,” he adds.

David Oatis, principal of David Oatis Consulting, agreed with McNeil when he said greens and their surrounds are the “most critical” areas of golf courses, as trees around greens are always the most problematic. “However, when they’re located too close to or block sunlight to other critical areas (fairways, tees, bunkers, etc.) they may need to be removed as well. Trees that drop debris on greens, tees or in bunkers are a major nuisance and increase labor. Species with invasive root systems can damage and shorten equipment life and clog and ruin drain lines.”

Most courses, Oatis explains, do some tree work in-house, but the amount and extent depends on resources. “Tree work is dangerous and it requires training, so this is not a job for amateurs,” he says. “It is critical to have the supporting equipment such as chippers, saws, stump grinders, etc. Most courses contract some work out. Big, dangerous trees that are located close to critical structures are good ones to contract out.”

Some courses use contractors to help with cleanup as well. “It’s important to remember that getting the trees cut down and cleaned up is only half the job,” Oatis says. “Restoring the turf area, which includes stump removal, debris removal, adding topsoil, regrading and reseeding or sodding takes even more work.” If requirements are extensive, it may be practical to use an outside contractor, and perhaps even land clearing firms that can do the job much more quickly and efficiently, he adds.

Oatis believes input from a certified arborist should be sought whenever there is a question regarding tree health or safety. Using a consultant who understands golf course architecture, playability, trees and sun angles also is critically important.

“Arborists obviously know trees inside and out, but most don’t have a background in course architecture,” Oatis says. “Similarly, some architects have an excellent knowledge of trees, whereas others do not. Regardless, it still is critical to utilize a consultant with an in-depth knowledge of sun angles, because understanding sun angles is critical to identifying which trees should be removed and which removals will be most impactful.”

It is also important to consult with membership/players when considering a major tree removal program. “Golfers often like trees and believe them to be important for playability,” Oatis adds. “More trees equate to greater difficulty in the minds of many golfers. The truth is, trees often produce weak turf and playability problems, and defending golf holes with trees is usually a bad idea. Trees can fail due to a storm, lightning strike, or pest or disease. Trees are a nice addition and complement many designs, but rarely are they essential.”

Architect Jeff Mingay employs a simple criteria when it comes to removing trees from a course. “If trees pose potential health and safety risks to golfers and course maintenance workers, those need to go first and immediately. Trees that threaten turf health or complicate course maintenance are next on the target list.” Those reasons for tree removal, he believes, are “logical” and pretty easy to sell to membership and golfers. “Playability and aesthetic considerations are more subjective and often take a bit more educating as to the reasons why those troublesome trees should also be removed.”

Typically, other than health and safety considerations, trees that threaten turf health on greens are most problematic. Trees that shade greens and present root competition that threatens turf health and playing conditions on the putting surfaces ideally “need to go,” Oatis says.

John Daniels, a USGA Green Section Northeast Region agronomist, believes many golf courses have the necessary equipment on hand to take down trees. “However, the tools needed for the cleanup, like chippers and stump grinders, might be absent and require the assistance of a tree service company,” he says. “Just because you can take a tree down in-house doesn’t mean you always should. Certain trees require specialized equipment and training to make the process safe and efficient.”

Working with an ISA Certified Arborist, Daniels adds, is always a good idea. “They have the necessary training to assess the health of individual trees and help answer questions regarding safety.” Depending on the scope of the tree work, it might be worth soliciting the opinion of an architect to help answer questions about playability and design intent of specific holes as they relate to trees.

Daniels says trees are “dynamic,” meaning they must be occasionally pruned and removed based on a number of different factors. “Just because a tree wasn’t a problem a few years ago doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be removed now. Trees grow and the problems they can cause also grow each year if not properly managed.”

Mungeam says the best way to sell tree removal to customers is to clearly convey why the removal is proposed. The superintendent should make it “difficult” for the members to disagree with the removal request. “It’s a multi-pronged approach. Superintendents should first identify and make a list of what trees they feel are impacting turf health. Use an arborist to identify the hazardous trees and a golf architect to identify the trees impacting strategy and playability. Create a list of the trees backed by the experts’ reports and some photographs of the trees recommended for removal.”

In the end, when done in a studied and careful approach, tree removal projects can improve agronomics, reduce labor, enhance the playability of holes for golfers and add to the overall aesthetics of a course.

John Torsiello is a Torrington, Connecticut-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.