TREES ARE WORTH MONEY

June 26, 2012: When my daughter was young I used to play a game with her friends and her. While walking through a park or the woods I would point to a tree and holler “Trees are worth money! 10 cents!” The child that correctly identified the tree got the dime or nickel or sometimes a whole quarter. I found the financial incentive to be great for teaching tree identification and besides, it made me feel like an arboreal Alex Trebec ( “You've chosen Conifers for 10 cents . . . )

The problems with financial education incentives are that the bar is continually pushed upwards. Nickels and dimes, soon became quarters and dollars, and in the teen years it became, “That’s a cascara. I want to borrow the car tonight. That’s Holodischus, ocean spray, I want my own telephone in my bedroom!” Being unable and unwilling to meet these EDO’s (extortionary debt obligations) the Tree Bank folded in short order.

Your trees are worth money though and there is a way that their value can be assessed. It’s called tree appraisal and it’s an organized methodology to derive a specific dollar value to a tree. Most often tree appraisal comes up when there has been damage to a tree – sometimes due to another party, sometimes due to a natural disaster. For example, someone’s car careens off the road and strikes a tree in your yard. Just like if your car was struck by another car and an insurance appraiser inspects the damage and derives a settlement dollar amount, a tree appraiser can inspect your tree and determine the extent of damage and the dollar value of that damage.

Tree appraisals are conducted by registered consulting arborists and certified arborists. One size does not fit all when it comes to tree appraisal. There are different methods that are applied and that is determined by what is most appropriate for the situation. I’ve done a couple of handfuls of appraisals over the years. They have ranged from the more garden variety of “a dump truck backed over my tree”, to 3 acres of hurricane damaged landscape, to an intentional tree murder by an adjoining landowner dumping diesel fuel on the roots of a tree.

In every appraisal situation the first question the appraiser must ask is what is the most appropriate method to use. The worth of a salmon at the fighting end of a fishing rod will not be its worth served at a posh restaurant grilled with lemon juice and olive oil and delicately seasoned with herbes de provence and perhaps some of them curlicued beet and carrot strips alongside for visual impression. Appraising the worth of a tree in the forest will not be the same as appraising the worth of a 100 year old Oregon oak that is the centerpiece of a landscape.

The appraisal menu has the following entrees:

- The Diameter Method: This is the method most often used in larger trees in the urban/suburban landscape. It often results in a larger dollar value. It is often used where litigation is involved to determine a claim amount.

- The Property Value Method: This method is used to determine the loss of property value resulting from the loss of trees. In the 3 acres of hurricane damage, I mentioned above, I knew Mother Nature was not going to pay for the damages. If any kind of financial redress was forthcoming, it would be from the loss in property value that might be claimed on a tax return. This appraisal really required three different professionals. An arborist knows tree values. A real estate appraiser knows property values. A tax accountant knows when and how you can claim it on your taxes. Each needs the input of the other for a valid claim.

- The Replacement Method: This method is used for smaller trees, ones that can be realistically replaced (say 8” diameter or less). It involves an estimate of the cost to remove the damaged tree and to replace with one of a similar size. This may involve professionals other than an arborist, such as a tree grower and/or landscape contractor, folks that regularly plant trees and can give accurate, up-to-date costs.

- The Crop Method: Used where the damaged tree is part of an agricultural crop - trees in a forestland or trees in a Christmas tree plantation, for example. I live in a stand of Doug fir. If someone trespasses and cuts down one of my fir, the law says I’m entitled to 3 times its worth as a sawlog delivered to the mill, and no one cares whether I’ve hugged that tree daily for years, it’s the centerpiece of my rural landscape or I was planning to be buried beneath it. It’s a timber tree.

Once an appropriate appraisal method has been chosen, the tree appraiser goes on site and inspects the tree. For the diameter method, the tree’s “DBH” (diameter breast height – 4 ½’ above the ground) is measured. From that is calculated the square inches in the truck and that is multiplied by a dollar value per sq. inch. That’s the base worth of the tree and then the arborist will begin knocking that down based on it’s species, condition and location.

Let me create a scenario to illustrate. That hypothetical Doug fir that I mentioned above, let’s say it front and center in my suburban landscape, a key element of the landscape. A dastardly neighbor uphill of me, secretly cuts down the tree one dark night to get a better view. Forensic scientists are able to match the wood fiber of the trunk to the wood fibers inside the neighbor’s chainsaw and we have captured the culprit. Unfortunately, tree murder is not a jailable offense, and instead we take this butcher to court.

This was a large Doug fir, 36” DBH. It’s cross sectional area is 1018 square inches. At $60/sq. in. that’s $61,180!!! Holy Sequoia! But now we have to figure in other factors. First, there is the species factor.]Species factor is based on the desireability of a species for a given area. Does it grow well? Is it prone to disease and insect problems. Does it have pleasing form, flower or fruit? This is a very subjective judgement and to keep it a little more objective tree appraisers as a group through the CTLA (Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers) have published guidelines for judging these factors. Douglas fir have a species rating between 65-85%. Let’s pick the middle – 75%. Now the tree’s value becomes $61, 180 x 70% or $45,885.

The second factor is the condition factor, how healthy was this tree. This tree was healthy but it wasn’t perfect. It had a long lightening scar running down the trunk, it had some dead branches, but the trunk was sound and without signs of decay. The arborist rates it @70% of perfect. 70% of $45,885 = $32,119.

The last factor is the site location factor. It rates how prominent and important the tree was in the landscape. Was is a focal point in the front yard? Was it one of several in the backyard? Did George Washington sleep underneath it? The CTLA appraisal handbook gives a range of 80-90% for residences. This tree was prominent , but Washington didn’t sleep under it, only the owner when he was locked out one night. The arborist rates it at 80%. Now $32,119 x 805 = $25, 695. That’s still a big chunk of change for that tree.

Now it’s a matter for the court to take that appraisal information and determine a settlement amount. There is a lot of room for subjective judgement and it is the responsibility of the arborist to document the reasons why they chose the factor amounts that they did. Two different arborists may come up with two different appraisals and it can often be a matter of dueling arborists (one for the plaintiff and one for the defendant) in a court of law.

If we take the same Doug fir and transport it to my rural woodlot. The neighbor this time cuts it down wrongfully for firewood. The value of that tree delivered as logs to the sawmill is about $450. Triple that due to the Oregon timber trespass law and that neighbor will owe $1350. That’s a long ways from the 26K for the suburban landscape tree.

So you’re trees are worth money and usually more than you think. A good reason to take care of them .

F & P