Lake Norman & Mooresville

Replacing tall trees becomes a safety measure

Work that's been done alongside western Piedmont highways has many drivers puzzled. The state is chopping down tall trees and replacing them with modest saplings.

Crews have cut trees from long strips of right-of-way along Interstate 40, I-85, U.S. 321 and other multi-lane highways in Iredell, Catawba, Lincoln and surrounding counties. Piles of wood chips are all that remain of some trees.

"People are asking us why we are cutting down a perfectly healthy tree and planting back another one," said David Harris, state roadside erosion control and vegetation management engineer in the Raleigh headquarters of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Trading big trees for small ones is a safety measure, Harris said.

The state is attempting to reduce hazards in highway rights-of-way, Harris said. A driver who crashes into a tree is more likely to survive striking a dogwood than an oak. Some roadside memorials, crosses and wreaths, are testament to the deadly consequences of striking a large tree, Harris said.

A broad tree-less shoulder or those with only modest size trees like dogwoods and redbuds "gives drivers a chance to recover when they run off the road," said Harris.

Unlike tall oaks and pines, the smaller trees also won't fall into the roadway if they are damaged in a storm, said Jason Willis, roadside environmental engineer, with N.C. DOT in the Shelby office.

"Dogwoods never cause a maintenance issue," said Willis.

Drivers on U.S. 321 are seeing the colorful blossoms of the dogwoods and redbuds planted last fall.

I-85 drivers see the work now near the Belmont Abbey exit, Willis said. Pines growing near the road will be replaced by redbuds.

The tree-cutting is part of the Clear Zone Improvement Program, which began about five years ago. It aims at reducing maintenance costs and improving safety.

Trees along many of the state's 600,000 acres of right-of-way started to become an issue after the state reduced roadside mowing in the 1970s to save money. Less mowing gave seedlings a chance to get established in the right-of-way, allowing trees to creep too close to travel lanes.

A state beautification program in the Winston-Salem area that replaced a band of canopy trees with dogwoods and redbuds had the serendipitous effect of fewer serious crashes into roadside trees, Harris said.

That was the start of the clear zone program, which is now evident across the state, but especially in the west.

Replacing a line of mature trees with young under-story trees like dogwoods and redbuds establishes a forest perimeter and keeps the large canopy trees from creeping into the right-of-way, Harris said.

The combination of small trees, native grasses and fewer tall trees is helping control maintenance costs. The work is done sporadically in the state's 14 highway divisions, based on local spending priorities. Replanting some cleared areas with small flowering trees got a boost from the $5.5 million in federal stimulus money, Harris said.