Non-arborist w/a question about a dying tree

Hi, I just happened upon this forum when looking for an arborist to answer a question, & thought I'd ask here, too. Sorry for the long prelude:

We have a tall maple, trunk diameter about 32 inches, sitting on a slope above the city sidewalk, barely over our property line. The sidewalks were installed 5 years ago at which time most of the slope was dug out and all the exposed roots of the maple were severed about 4 ft from the trunk. It looked like about 1/4 to 1/3 of the trees roots may have been cut. When the sidewalks were completed they filled the soil back in around and over the roots, heaping the slope higher than it had been, although a few of the upper roots remained exposed. At that time my husband told a city employee that he felt certain the tree would eventually die due to so many large roots being cut. The employee said it was necessary to cut them, but said he didn't think it would hurt the tree that much. And said to "wait and see" and contact him if it died.

Well, the tree's still alive, but over these 5 years it's been losing branches (the lower ones dying first and moving upward) and showing other signs of steadily leaving (npi) the land of the living. The top of the tree looks OK, as far as we can see, with healthy-looking foliage. But, only last year we realized a large portion of the bark that appeared to be "loosening" on its lower trunk, in reality had been concealing a big area of rot. Also, there's now fungus on the trunk growing about 10 feet up.

That city employee no longer works there, but we started trying to contact his replacement last spring. Finally the city's transportation engineer came by to look at the tree. Later he said that he had told the city's arborist about the tree and her response (to him, not to us - she never saw the tree personally) was, "The tree is not dying because the roots were cut 5 years ago. It's dying because it has places that are rotting and because it has fungus growing on it. It needs to be cut down, and it's the homeowner's responsibility to do so."

No, we aren't professional arborists & we don't claim to have great tree knowledge. But we have owned property in rural Oregon (logger country) for decades, before we moved to this city. We managed to glean at least a bit of learning, by experience as well as being taught by friends who were tree specialists. We've had trees that were obviously in the process of dying for years before they finally gave up the ghost. The only times we remember seeing rot in a tree is when it was injured in some way, or when it was already in the process of dying. We've also noticed fungi a lot - in fact began collecting it - over the years, but usually only on already dead or dying trees. In fact, I don't remember seeing it ever on a fairly young and healthy tree.

Before the city cut those roots, the maple was perfectly healthy, had no holes or rotting places on it, nor was there any fungus on or around it. We've been told by others in this city, "that's the way they handle things like this these days. The city's arborist isn't paid to care about our trees, but rather to keep the city from having to take responsibility for damage they may have caused to them."

So, OK, I'm willing to accept that we may be wrong; that maybe the tree somehow started rotting from the inside out and that fungus flew over and "attacked" it, causing it to die. But I'd sure appreciate some opinions from arborists without an agenda.

Thanks in advance!!!


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If their work caused your tree to rot and get "unsafe", get the value of the tree appraised, and notify them that you can pursue a small claims court case to recover the loss of your property in the tree. Not only cost of removal, but cost of replacement.

Can you post pics of 1 the wounds on the cut root(s), 2 the trunk showing the rot, 3 the whole tree? You could get an appraisal report from an offsite arborist. ;)
Contact a local arborist, preferably with experience in this realm. It sounds like you are probably correct.

I am not so sure that there will be any recourse that is worth the trouble. Guy would know better than I do, but I just think that the likelyhood of convincing landlubbers that not only did underground damage from half a decade ago take this long to really manifest, but also that the tree has an actual value anywhere near what it would be appraised at.
Hey, sorry it took so long, & I'm not a very good photographer. Plus the sunlight seemed to be against getting a good photo from afar, but here's a few.
Oh, first, I was wrong about how far the cuts in the roots were from the tree. My husband says it was more like 5 or even 6 ft on most of them. I need to dig down to see what the buried ones look like, so will probably get that done tomorrow. OK, now for the photos, such as they are.
#1 is the best I could get to show the tree & sidewalk now. Before this was a gentle slope all the way to the curb. The main, healthiest root that didn't rot away is visible.
#3 shows that same remaining root close up.
#4 shows the only cut off end of a root that still shows. It looks at 1 time it tried to keep growing a smaller root out of the end & it that little root could still be alive, but the rest of the end of the cut root is completely rotted now.
#7 is from across the street, not the best lighting, but the dying maple is the 1 farthest to the right.
#9 didn't come out too well w/the late light, but just a closer view of the dying trunk - can't see the rot well in this photo.
#10 - the best shot I could get of the fungus & a few of the dead branches looking upward
#13 is the nearest other maple, just shows how the dying one looked before - no rot, no holes, no fungus, etc.
#14 is the same healthy maple top branches, but I guess they're hard to see w/all the other trees' leaves mixed in. Anyway, the dying tree still has similarly nice leaves at the top still, too.
So, maybe I should have my husband take pictures tomorrow earlier in the day, since he's the family photographer after all.
But, just asking, apart from the photos, are we wrong in believing that cutting the roots the way they did could cause a tree to gradually die? Thanks so much for your response!!!


Hi, sorry, I'm technically reclined, too. Didn't see SomethingWitty's response, & didn't realize only 1 photo was showing at a time, when I thought I'd opened all of them. So here's another go, w/the numbers as written above:
#3 3.jpg
I did have a close-up shot of the rot, too, but somehow lost it for now. Anyway, so SomethingWitty, I understand about the tree itself, & we weren't even going to ask for replacement. Just that they cut it down. I'd say the symptoms were showing a lot sooner, we just didn't think to peel the bark back & look. It's pretty badly rotted away in there, so it's been going on a long time. We were told it would cost about a thousand bucks to have it professionally removed. We're thinking, hey, for that much money, we could buy a coupla plane tickets for our best friends in Oregon, who used to own a logging company and still have all their good ol' gear. That way at least we'd enjoy a week or so visiting with them & showing them around this part of the country.

I think the 1st guy my husband talked with about it 5 years ago was so nice, he didn't think we'd have a problem. But apparently the city's been busy replacing the good guys w/people who're more concerned about saving the city money. Sigh, oh well, need to move back home to the Pacific NW.

Thanks again, guys, for the advice! And, after reading some posts, I'm about ready to get some tree climbing gear myself, and see if someone can teach me the ropes, ha ha. I've always loved climbing trees.

And # 13 & 14 are of the healthy maple back further from the road:
13.jpg 14.jpg


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But, just asking, apart from the photos, are we wrong in believing that cutting the roots the way they did could cause a tree to gradually die? Thanks so much for your response!!!
#4 is damning--big root cut. #1 shows scar tissue to the right ~5 years old, and advancing rot to the left. Pry off all dead bark with screwdriver to expose full margin of wound.
I'm showing what you wrote to my husband. Guymayor, are you an "off-site arborist"? I mean, can your appraisal be used? Open&shut is good enough for me to at least give it a try! I'm not so mild-mannered that this last contact (w/the city) didn't tick me off.

What you're talking about to the right: That's where the bark was looking "loose" for at least a few years now, but my husband said to leave it alone. Then earlier this year a few chunks fell off, so that's when we realized how rotted it was behind the bark. Tomorrow I'll try to get a better photo of it.

So, yeah, all that bark you can see in photo #1, to the right hanging off all the way down, is where it's rotted out. My husband is still afraid to pull the bark off any more, but I don't see what difference it'll make at this point. It sounds like, from what Guy wrote, it's been a victim of arborcide, aka tree murder, right? Can't "fix" that, I don't imagine. Plus, I'm sure there are more spots too high to reach b/c the bark appears to be peeling off up there, too. I've been reading on your website, Guy, & wish we could save it w/some of your ideas & techniques. But, I think once we begin pulling bark of that side of the tree it'll reveal no less than 1/3 of the inside is turned to dust.
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Welcome Finn,
Perhaps if you ask guy nicely he would take this on as a case. He is close enough that travel would not be out of the question for him. I highly recommend him for this case. As to the comment by the city arborist(female), she should be relieved of her duties, she is not an arborist no matter what abbreviations may follow her name. I agree that the sidewalk installation has had a negative impact and that 5 years is not an uncommon amount of time for the decline to become noticeable. City engineers and traffic engineers are one of the biggest threats to our trees and unfortunately they tend to have tunnel vision. I fight with them all the time. Now, just an off hand question, how much use has the sidewalk had since it was installed? Does the benefit of having the sidewalk outweigh the benefit of having the tree? Just a question to consider. Good luck in your fight.
I hope you have the tenacity and wherewithal to see this through and exact punishment from the city.

I know how these things go and they're usually a fruitless headache, but if you've got the time and gumption, I'd be happy if you were compensated for the tree.

Trees are beautiful and valuable, and they take a long time to get where they're going. It's a shame we have cut down so much of the old growth forests in this country.


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To be fair, cities follow formulas about the degree of slope allowed. Looks like they dug away dirt and roots to lessen the slope and the perceived risk of you or anybody falling. Yes, someone could have built a retaining wall instead.

Yes I am an off-site arborist and would be glad to generate an appraisal for you to use in negotiations with the city. It's clearly not fair that you get stuck with a liability caused by the sidewalk. If you contact me through the website we can talk about how that works

Very common for dead bark to cover dead and dying tissue for years. Here's an example from IL, where the owner was also clueless until bark started shedding.



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Seems on wooded streets cities have to choose between trees and sidewalks. Impossible to install sidewalk near trees without harming them. Maybe put it to vote first?
That is the case with new installations...but for repairs/replacements, there are often (but not always) options for doing so without destroying the tree...but it is different than just digging up the old plus 12" on either side with a big excavator. Sloping up and over. Going around. Flexible pavement. Pavers instead of concrete. All relatively simple options to have ADA compliant sidewalks and healthy trees. Where those are not options, the trees should be removed (and budgeted) as part of the sidewalk replacement - not fatally damaged and left to fall at an undetermined future time.

But a city has to want to do that...or, as you implied, the citizens of the city have to want/demand that (whether that is a specific vote about trees or supporting elected officials who recognize the trees are part of the city's infrastructure as much as the sidewalks, waterlines, sewer, curbs, etc...). There are also plenty of citizens who would just prefer the trees removed so they don't have to rake I don't envy that balancing act they have to sometimes play.
You guys are awesome. I 1st came here only to ask the basic question about our tree, but have stayed & already become absorbed in the many related topics you cover. I missed my calling, I now see. I shoulda been a tree-climbing tree saver! Most of all, thank you so much for your input, & just for caring!

I agree about the value & beauty of each & every tree. I witnessed the devastation of hill after hill of old growth in Oregon as a child. One year there would be a wide & high vista of green spires against blue, with the sun shining through the many tall, tall trees; the next year changed to that of a brown hill full of stumps revealing matching hills stretching out behind it for miles. The only thing I saw that compared, as far as the shocking change of natural view, was when Mt. St. Helens blew its top in 1980. Well... there also was driving through Tillamook county on our way to our favorite beach town in the late 60s, with all the blackened tree shells around us. But that (those) famous fire(s) happened long before I was born, so I had no previous point of comparison; only my father's repeated sad commentary every time we passed through, about how beautiful it'd been when he was a child.

Anyway, back again to our current single tree. Oldoakman, I believe the sidewalks have been of great benefit to many and have no argument with them, aside from believing it was not necessary to cut our tree's roots back so severely to install them. However, that opens another much larger problem: our small residential street is now being used as a virtual thoroughfare thanks to the city's lack of foresight in allowing massive amounts of new multi-family development in other areas of the city, without taking into account the need of appropriate routes for the exploding population to use when commuting across town. So our street, absurdly dangerous now with a 10-fold increase in traffic in only the last few years, would probably have had fatalities by now if not for the sidewalks. It was always used as a cut-through, but this is ridiculous.

And to TallTreeClimber, I think you hit directly on it about the need for tenacity (& time & gumption & strength!) to see the tree issue through, when I'm already exhausted trying to get the city to take the traffic problem seriously. Especially considering your opinion that fighting city hall is usually a fruitless headache. That’s been my experience, too. I used to be a real fighter when it came to things like this, but I'm just getting too old for this baloney. Or at least maybe I've learned to pick my battles better?

Bucknut, the irony, as I was told by a neighbor, is that they've called it "The City of Trees" for years. But can you explain what you mean about putting it to a vote? Do you mean the city, or the residents of this street who've had trees affected?

Frankly, at this point if I considered in what way to best invest my energy, time, money & gumption, I'm thinking I'd like to go wrangle up some equipment and learn how to safely climb and prune trees. I wanna be one of you!!! :) So what if I'm in my early 60s already? I still climb trees anyway, (just for fun), & feel about as good as I did in my… mmm… 30s. <grin> Maybe this could give me a new lease on life. And it's probably safer than the idea I had last month (cliff diving.)

But seriously, God bless all you tree climbers and savers! I'm glad I found this community!


Looks like they dug away dirt and roots to lessen the slope and the perceived risk of you or anybody falling.
Went on so long I missed the last 2 posts before responding. I'd already been to your site, Guy, & intended to call tomorrow! But, no, in this case they didn't reduce the steepness of the slope at all, but increased it by mounding the dirt up even more above the sidewalk. All I thought was that it wasn't necessary to dig out so far into the slope, period. They had more than enough room already. The photo of the bark on the Muehlenbergii in your document looks remarkably like that on our poor maple! I only started reading your story, but have to ask: is it partly fiction, or did you really fall off a roof??!! Hopefully I'll tty tomorrow.
But a city has to want to do that...or, as you implied, the citizens of the city have to want/demand that (whether that is a specific vote about trees or supporting elected officials who recognize the trees are part of the city's infrastructure as much as the sidewalks, waterlines, sewer, curbs, etc...)
ATH, I love how you put, "...recognize the trees are part of the city's infrastructure as much as the sidewalks, waterlines, sewer, curbs, etc..."!!! Will be using that one!


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Bucknut, the irony, as I was told by a neighbor, is that they've called it "The City of Trees" for years. But can you explain what you mean about putting it to a vote? Do you mean the city, or the residents of this street who've had trees affected?
I guess I hadn't really thought it through. Just tossed out an idea to avoid these types of issues. I suppose it would be considered an undue burden on the city to have to vote on every sidewalk or street repair that could harm a tree. That would be a lot of votes, especially in a large city.

Hate to see a mature tree killed, but there is a certain charm to a nice wooded neighborhood with sidewalks that let kids and families get around and meet each other. Life is full of compromises. Certainly there are more tree-friendly sidewalk options, but they are almost certainly more expensive than concrete. And of course taxpayers would complain if the city routinely went that route.

I suppose that's a long way of saying I don't have a great answer for you. Hopefully Guy can be of assistance.