On Thursday, April 10 we got a phone call from someone upset about trees being taken down along Route 89 between Taughannock Falls State Park and Ithaca. He was upset that large trees (“40 or 50 feet tall”) were being removed and he could not see the rhyme or reason for selection of the trees taken. The caller had stopped his car and walked up to the road crew in an effort to find out what they were doing and why. He was told in no uncertain terms to get lost.
A foray down Route 89 revealed that a contractor called Adirondack Tree Surgeon was indeed removing trees from within 10 or 15 feet of the shoulder of the state highway. They were taking down many different sizes of trees, but were leaving far more than they were cutting down. The only thing that the tree stumps seemed to have in common was that they were all leaning toward the road. Trees at the edge of woodlands tend to lean into a clearing (in this case a road) in an effort to reach more sun.
In the recent ice storms in Tompkins County several trees weighted down by ice fell into the road and blocked or partially blocked traffic.
Flakes called the New York State Department of Transportation to find out more about the rationale behind the tree cutting. Stan Birchenough, the resident engineer in the Cortland office of the DOT, returned the call later in the day.
Birchenough said that the tree thinning was part of a long-term “landscape plan.” After the contractors finished with Route 89 they will move on to Rt. 327 near Robert Treman State Park and the to Rt. 34/96 through Newfield and Danby. There is no regular cycle to this event. Rather the DOT does the work when the funds are available.
The engineer explained that the DOT travels the routes and evaluates the rights of way, makes a plan that designates which trees should be removed and then gives the map to the tree contractors. “They are overseen by a DOT engineer on site throughout the operation,” he said. “We always see more to take down when we are out in the field.”
The state right of way is a minimum of 33 feet from the center of the road, but Birchenough explained that there are “little takes” all along the road that expand this corridor through short stretches. The right of way may be widened near culverts and bridges and the state may also retain ownership of the land even after the road is moved slightly (an “alignment change”) over the years.
The criteria for tree removal include
- trees and branches overhanging the roadway
- trees that are dead or partially dead
- any tree that appears to jeopardize the roadway in some way
Birchenough admitted that he would rather have taken down more trees than are actually removed, “because then I wouldn’t have to worry about it again for a while.” But evidently engineers are not in charge of this particular policy. “We are just taking what is absolutely necessary,” he said.
This portion of Route 89 is part of the Cayuga Scenic Byway, but Birchenough said that this status had no effect on the tree removal policy. On larger roads – such as divided sections of Route 13 – the policy is to clear more trees further from the road.