Eastern White Pines by the tennis courts
The Town is setting a time in the next week or so for arborist Thomas Brady and Applied Plant and Soil Scientist Norm Helie to meet to discuss their conflicting reports. (Courtesy of Dylan Clark)

Last month, the Town held a public forum where residents aired questions and concerns about its recommendation to remove 37 white pines due to structural and safety concerns identified by a Town-commissioned arborist. At the forum, Jerry Harris, the spokesperson for a group of 300 current and former residents concerned about the removal, noted that this group had hired someone to complete an independent report on the condition of each of the 37 trees. Now, Applied Plant and Soil Scientist Normand Helie has completed his report – which contends that, with the right pruning, the vast majority of these white pines do not need to be removed.

Why Helie was asked to complete the report: On April 1, Georgia Harris, Jerry’s wife and an abutter to the trees, reached out to Helie asking that he review arborist Thomas Brady’s conclusions about the need to remove the 37 white pines. In his report, Helie wrote that Brady’s “letter had absurd statements regarding this species’ growth habit and his conclusion to remove all the trees seemed very rash.” Helie “agreed to review the letter and assess the condition of the trees.” Georgia Harris edits the monthly newsletter published by the Ecological Landscape Alliance. This organization “has been a leader in promoting sustainable approaches to landscape design, construction, and management” and is committed to “innovative ideas and evidence-based practices” per its website; “When we decided to obtain a second opinion, we wanted to find a person whose professional practice aligned with these values,” Jerry Harris wrote in an email to LexObserver. Helie had written several articles for this newsletter, “which made us familiar with his ideas and approach to topics like conservation and pruning,” Jerry Harris added.

What Brady’s original report found: Brady’s original report described serious structural issues in several trees, including co-dominant stems in 24 of 37 trees, “vertical cracks” and “seepage” in many of the trees “indicating some level of branch union failure in progress”, and “a bit more deadwood than I would like to see in White Pines of this size and age” in the canopies. Between his site visit, observations of previous failures, “consistency in the age and condition of the tree community in question” and the lack of other ways “to reduce risk in the trees themselves, combined with no clear path to reduce the targets in the area,” Brady reached the “difficult conclusion” that “strong consideration be given to the removal of the trees in question.” Brady’s two-page report did not specify the conditions of each individual tree; at the request of the Town, he is currently working on a follow-up report examining the trees individually, which will be ready “within the next two weeks,” Director of Public Works David Pinsonneault wrote in an email to LexObserver.

How Helie’s report differs – pruning as a potential solution, not a fatal blow: “The fundamental difference between my report and Thomas Brady’s report is pruning,” Helie wrote in an email to LexObserver. While Brady’s recommendation is tree removal, Helie outlines a detailed, tree-by-tree pruning plan for each of the 37 trees. During the public forum, Brady noted that he did “severe crown reduction” in younger years as an arborist, but said this kind of pruning can accelerate tree decline and decay by removing the trees’ food source and sapping their strength. Helie, on the other hand, recommends biomass cuts which reduce tree heights by 20 to 25% for 36 of the 37 trees. “Pruning trees does not damage them. Trees have been pruned for thousands of years,” Helie wrote to LexObserver. In fact, “correct pruning stimulates tree health and improves its structure” whereas “incorrect pruning can damage trees.” In his report, Helie did acknowledge that “Conservation pruning of mature EWP will obviously lower the relative growth rate of the tree by lowering the photosynthetic capacity.” But Helie argues that growth would naturally slow when trees reach maturity, whereas “the pruning process will encourage this sooner than later and at the same time, also reduce the risk of stem failure.” In conclusion, Helie writes that “the recommendation for total EWP biomass elimination is inappropriate and reckless…If we use the ‘remove and replace [principle]’ everywhere we wouldn’t need arborists.” 

Alternative “Fibonacci crown thinning:” Aside from reducing tree height through pruning, Helie presents an alternative strategy called “Fibonacci crown thinning” for each tree which, per his report, “is a little more complex and may require more education and experience.” Eastern White Pine branch growth follows Fibonacci sequences, and each whorl of branches on the main stem includes two to four dominant branches and one to four subordinate branches. Eliminating “the number of dominant branches by crown thinning in the upper 20 feet of each stem in the canopy” by “around 35% but not to exceed 50% at each whorl” roughly constitutes targeted Fibonacci crown thinning. Helie calls this a “conservation pruning technique” which “will encourage a slower growth central branch and the natural beauty at the tops of mature EWP.” 

Not all pruning is good pruning: Not all pruning works for Eastern White Pines, per Helie’s report: “We should avoid traditional (ANSI A-300) pruning specifications for this species because it doesn’t consider its natural growth pattern and internal wood development,” he wrote. In contrast, “The goal of EWP pruning is risk reduction of catastrophic stem failure while preserving as many care-free natural forms and beauty of the species.”. 

Helie calls for fertilization after pruning: Following the pruning, Helie wrote LexObserver that even inexpensive fertilization could be very effective to maintaining tree health. While “incorrect fertilization can push unbalanced growth and cause trees to fail[,] like good pruning, good fertilization will improve tree health.” In the report, Helie suggests specific natural minerals and root protection to support tree health.

Helie says all trees but one should be preserved by pruning: Overall, “36 trees should be pruned with standard pruning practices,” Helie wrote to LexObserver. The only outlier, “The southernmost pine in the row could be saved but, it could also be removed. And I would go along with its removal in this situation,” he added.

Helie classifies 34 trees as “good” and three as “fair”: The southernmost pine which “could also be removed” is one of the three trees Helie classifies as “fair” rather than “good.” Helie wrote LexObserver that “good and fair are comprehensive statements of health and their structure” which take visual defects like cracks into account. These ratings can change over time and with action: “Pruned trees in fair condition can become good. And good condition trees can become excellent.”

The Town’s next steps: “We are currently reviewing [Helie’s] report,” Pinsonneault wrote in an email to LexObserver. “The next step is for the two report writers to meet.” The Town is “setting a time in the next week or so” for Brady and Helie to discuss their reports, and “a determination will be made after that meeting.”

Helie’s qualifications: Some Town staff have expressed concern about Helie’s expertise as he is not a currently registered Massachusetts arborist. “I study and practice arboriculture every day,” Helie wrote in an email to LexObserver. Helie was a Massachusetts-registered arborist from 1989 to 2008, and “allowed his certification to lapse as his career progressed toward arborist consultation and scientific research,” according to Jerry Harris. “While Norm’s certification has lapsed, we feel he continues to demonstrate the values espoused by the Massachusetts Certified Arborist (MCA) program goal,” Jerry Harris wrote, “including but not limited to ‘reinforcing the need for education based on science and research’, and ‘acknowledging the need to stay current in a rapidly evolving industry’, and “demonstrates a dedication to arboriculture as a profession’.” Harris agreed that verifying the expertise and experience of anyone giving input to the Town and community is important. He pointed out that the MCA is a voluntary certification program, and that no law requires arborists to join or take the MCA exam to practice arboriculture in Massachusetts. Helie added that “Tree pruning and fertilization have been my business and focus of study my entire life.” He has worked with and advised certified arborists across New England, including Friends of the Public Garden. To Jerry Harris, Helie’s “detailed plan for pruning and preserving the trees gives the Town a path to achieving our shared goals of reducing the risk of harm to people and property, preserving trees, and saving money.” He hopes the Town acknowledges Helie’s years of experience “and give[s] his plan serious consideration while deciding next steps.”

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