The Fall of Atlanta’s Urban Forest

Times Staff Writer

Residents are normally fond of the century-old trees that provide grace and a canopy of cooling shade to this city’s old neighborhoods. This summer, though, Atlantans are looking up with trepidation.

Many of those trees have been crashing down -- the result of a one-two punch that first weakened the roots through years of drought and then loosened their hold on the ground following months of repeated heavy rains. The storms, some carrying high winds, have toppled thick, 80-foot-high oaks like bowling pins, though no one knows exactly how many.

In one publicized case last month, a falling tree killed a woman and two children who were riding in the back seat of a sport utility vehicle through a neighborhood near downtown during a severe thunderstorm. The woman’s husband, who was driving, was uninjured. The incident came less than two weeks after a visiting professor from Japan was crushed to death in his car when a limb came loose from an oak, also during a storm.

The deaths, combined with the seemingly constant succession of rainstorms, have caused homeowners to glance anxiously at the trees on their properties and swamp tree specialists with requests for house calls.


Joe Piffaretti, who recently bought a home surrounded by oaks in East Point, a few miles south of Atlanta, said he finds himself paying special attention to weather forecasts.

“I tend to be clicking on and that kind of thing on a regular basis,” said Piffaretti, director of development for the nonprofit group Trees Atlanta.

Piffaretti called an arborist to examine the trees on his lot. Last week, the specialist recommended the removal of a 60-year-old white oak that Piffaretti thought lent beauty and character to his property. The tree suffered from root rot that likely was made worse by the wetness of the ground.

Four years of drought followed by one of the wettest stretches on record throughout the Southeast created hazardous conditions for the old trees. Ed Macie, regional urban forester with the U.S. Forest Service in Atlanta, described a string of factors: roots weakened from extended dry weather, rain-saturated ground and trees made top-heavy and tottery because of a burst of new growth fed by all of the moisture.

“I noticed this in June and July. Just driving around I could see extensive growth, a second flush,” Macie said.

The result is an aging urban forest more vulnerable than normal to the high winds that have accompanied the frequent rainstorms. Sometimes barely a breeze has been required. Some mature trees with extensive growth at the crowns but whose trunks are decayed are “just laying down and dying,” Macie said.

Such might have been the case outside the home of Cheryl Windom, who lives in the Buckhead section north of downtown. Windom, her husband and their son were collecting fireflies one evening. They had just been discussing what was happening to Atlanta’s trees, she said, when they heard a crack.

“This old oak tree split in half, 80-plus feet tall. No weather, no storm, no wind, no nothing,” Windom said. In a move they later conceded was unwise, her husband sprinted to move their car a few moments before half of the tree crashed down where it had been parked.


Amid the elevated concern over trees, Marcia Bansley, Trees Atlanta’s executive director, is advising homeowners to call certified arborists for an evaluation before deciding to cut down their trees.

Already, the number of trees in the region has steadily declined because of rapid development. “In Atlanta, we have lost 65% of our tree cover since 1975, mostly due to growth and development,” Bansley said.

Arborists and tree services have been scrambling to keep up with calls from worried residents. “The last month I’d say my increase in the amount of calls that I’ve had has been at least eight to 10 times,” said Bob Heath, who owns J.H. Heath Tree Service in Atlanta.

Heath said most of the time his crews seek to save trees by recommending maintenance, such as pruning or mulching. “That’s my business: preservation of things,” Heath said. “We’re arborists. I can always cut one down, but I can’t put it back up.”


Some arborists said the recent attention might stave off future tragedy, as well as improve the health of trees that, while beloved, have faced years of neglect.

But the trees also suffer from what Macie calls “urban conflict,” the damage caused by automobiles, roots bothered by utility and fiber-optic lines, and smaller spaces in which to grow. “They’re warriors. They’re standing there with a really thin shield of armor called their bark, and all this stuff keeps happening to them,” he said.

If nothing else, residents are more attentive to the venerable old trees.

“I’ve never looked up and thought, ‘I wonder how old these trees are,’ ” Windom said. “Now everyone I talk to says, ‘I’m so much more aware of my surroundings now, where I park my car.’ ”



Staff writer Ken Ellingwood contributed to this report.