My Turn: ‘Preserve this incredible resource and piece of history in Sunderland’

  • The American sycamore tree commonly known as the Buttonball Tree in Sunderland on North Main Street. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 4/18/2021 9:51:00 AM

I’m sorry to continue to be a pain about the North Main Street project, but I continue to be very concerned about the impacts of construction on the Historic Buttonball, which is the largest treee in the commonwealth. I appreciate the recent effort (that was made in response to concerns voiced at a Selectboard meeting) to extend the fencing. However, the fencing itself is totally inadequate — there are several examples on either side of North Main Street of the fencing being breached or simply moved out of the way — and it’s not a meaningful deterrent to incursion. In addition, construction activity will apparently occur immediately adjacent to the Historic Buttonball (to the right of the tree trunk where it abuts the sidewalk).

The critical root zone (CRZ) of a tree is defined as an approximately circular area centered on the trunk of the tree; it can vary depending on specific circumstances, but for the Historic Buttonball, the approach is straightforward. At 4.5 feet above the ground, the Historic Buttonball’s trunk diameter is 98 inches — this is known as “diameter at breast height” or “DBH”) — according to the report from the consulting arborist hired by the town. To determine the CRZ for the tree, the radius of the circular area centered on the trunk is equal to one foot for every inch of DBH, which is a radius 98 inches for the Historic Buttonball. This is the absolute minimum area to protect; ideally, the radius would be 1.5 feet for every inch of DBH (resulting in a radius of 147 feet for the Historic Buttonball).

If the town and the commonwealth were truly interested in preserving the Historic Buttonball (and they should be), they would erect an actual tree protection zone with signs and real fencing supported by sturdy fence poles fixed rigidly in the ground at a radius of at least 98 feet (preferably 147 feet) from the trunk. To minimize the odds of adversely impacting the health and structural stability of the Historic Buttonball during construction, no one would enter and no work would occur in the CRZ.

At 98 feet from the trunk, the CRZ will obviously go into North Main Street, so it would have to be abridged on the road side. Before setting the fence on the road side, a qualified consulting arborist (one who is intimately familiar with current tree preservation standards and best management practices, and has extensive experience implementing them should use an air tool to carefully excavate soil to determine the extent of the tree’s roots that abut the road bed. If roots larger than 1 inch in diameter will be damaged by the road widening, they should be cut with sharp hand tools by a qualified arborist who has extensive experience with root pruning in accordance with the ANSI A300 Part 1 (2017) Pruning Standard.

With regard to the sidewalk work, which is much closer to the trunk of the Historic Buttonball and will very likely do substantial damage to the roots, is it possible simply not to conduct any work within the CRZ? Instead of tearing up and repaving the sidewalk, couldn’t signs be put up to explain that the next 200 feet of sidewalk were not repaved to minimize the likelihood of root damage to the largest tree in Massachusetts? This simple approach seems like it would save cost and, beneficially, raise awareness of both the Historic Buttonball (and the value of trees in general) as well as the importance of preserving roots during construction.

I don’t understand why it’s necessary to risk damaging a focal point of the town and the largest tree in the commonwealth. During the 15 years I’ve lived in Sunderland, I’ve driven by the Historic Buttonball thousands of times; nearly every time I drive by I see people gazing in awe at it. The tree has been here for hundreds of years, and in all likelihood it will outlive all of us. Risking the tree to “improve” a short stretch of sidewalk seems to be terribly misguided.

I realize that my suggestions may seem draconian, but they are absolutely necessary to protect the Historic Buttonball. We’ve already seen what happens when there isn’t an actual tree protection zone: a week ago the contractor parked an excavator on the CRZ of the Historic Buttonball. This sort of incursion will definitely continue to happen without a concerted effort to protect the tree, which must involve an actual tree protection zone. If one is not erected, it invites incursions, whether intentional or not. It’s not a question of whether it will happen, but rather when and how much damage will occur — hundreds of years of growth could be undermined in a matter of hours.

And once the damage has occurred, it’s infinitely more difficult (and costly) to try to help the tree. But the costs are paid in the future, long after work is completed and everyone has been paid, so it’s easy not to correlate the tree’s ultimate decline with root damage that may have occurred a decade (or more) in the past.

It would be a real tragedy not to take every possible precaution to preserve this incredible resource and piece of history in Sunderland.

Brian Kane, Ph.D., is a certified arborist, a professor of arboriculture at University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Sunderland resident. He sent this letter to the Sunderland town administrator, local legislators and MassDOT.


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