The towering, bare oak tree removed from the front of Ken and Eleanor Jennings' Columbia home yesterdaywas just a slim, 6-foot sapling when they bought the house on Eliot's Oak Road in 1968.
"It had a few green leaves on it early in the spring," Ken Jennings said, but they didn't last long. "The poor thing is dead," his wife added, killed by old age, disease and the rigors of a 3-year-old drought that has taken a toll on Maryland's trees.
On Wednesday, Howard County crews took down another dead tree, a huge, 75-year-old white oak in front of the county's main library near The Mall in Columbia. Jimmy Mathis, a 22-year-old crew member, swayed in the branches, whipped about by the strong, cold breeze, easily lopping off branches with his chain saw, and proud of his skill.
"It's different. Not everybody can do it," the Mount Airy man said later.
Steve Parker, the county's tree care supervisor, said he has a list of 165 complaints about other dead trees, plus 40 red maple saplings along Brittle Branch Way in western Lisbon that have died. His crews are responsible for 115,000 street trees in Howard, he said.
A study to determine the conditions of Maryland's urban trees is under way, according to Michael Galvin, urban operations manager for the state's forest service. Roadside trees are being inventoried at 500 sites -- each about one-tenth of an acre -- around Maryland under a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said. The sites were chosen at random using computer mapping technology, Galvin said, and should reflect some effects of the multiyear drought.
Last year, the State Highway Administration planted 15,131 seedlings and 37,959 young trees along state roadways as the drought deepened. This year, said spokesman David Buck, scores of trees, such as the Bradford pears planted along Route 28 in Anne Arundel County, succumbed to the multiple effects of drought and heavy rain and high winds that were remnants of Hurricane Floyd.
Howard County, unlike other suburban jurisdictions, is preparing to transfer $100,000 from other budgeted programs to replace dead street trees.
"We're sort of ahead of a lot of counties. What we've tried to do is help the environment by planting more trees," said Parker, who said the staff is expanding from 20 to 30 workers. Like other counties, Howard requires developers to plant street trees initially, and guarantee them for a year. After that, the county is responsible for removing dead trees and planting new ones.
Lately, Parker said, bacteria leaf scorch -- a disease that shuts down the circulation of fluids in leaves -- and bore insects have been a problem, especially for some oaks. The drought, he said, has made things worse by increasing stress on trees, making them more susceptible to disease and insects.
In addition, many trees planted between sidewalks and curbs of paved streets have only 3 feet of earth to grow in. As these trees expand, that lack of space hurts, Parker said. Now, the county wants trees to have at least 6 feet of earth. "We want a healthy urban forest," he said.
Many suburban governments don't plant street trees. In Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll counties, officials said, public works crews remove large, dead trees but leave it to community groups or residents to replace them. Baltimore City does replace dead street trees, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's public works department. Because of the drought, he said, the city lost about 300 street trees this year, but cut back on plantings from 1,500 to 800 to reduce losses in case the drought continues.
As Ken Jennings pointed out above the din of chain saws and branches being crunched into mulch, "When the county plants it, it's us [taxpayers] paying for it, anyway. We believe, in Howard County, in quality of life."
Jennings wants a new sapling planted next spring, partly because he's worried about other oaks on the street that are showing signs they might not last much longer either.
Although some neighbors have had to spend up to $2,000 to repair underground sewer pipes after roots have damaged them, they still want the dying trees replaced.
"I'll miss them. I think they do something to enhance the area," Genevieve Myren said.