Jackson Clarion-Ledger

Madison declares a state of disaster, seeks federal funds. See why

By Ross Reily

Eight pine trees are bunched together along the Madison Ave. right-of-way, just off of I-55 in Madison. They have died recently and need to be taken down because they pose a public-safety risk.

The death of the trees is attributed to prolonged drought, followed by excessive cold snaps that have been exacerbated by pine beetles feeding on the trees.

Madison Director of Operations Pete Vozzo says the cost to take down those eight trees will be around $1,500 each or $12,000 total.

It's a problem much bigger than those eight trees and one that is leading to a disaster declaration.

In a town where there may be more than 10,000 trees on public property that need to be taken down, the costs can rise into tens of millions of dollars. That is money that is not allocated for within the city budget.

Disaster declaration

That is why the City of Madison issued a disaster declaration in January, following an ice storm and frigid temperatures and then re-issued the declaration on Feb. 6. Declaring a disaster may help the city qualify for state and federal funds.

"We have talked to dozens of vendors, and it is reasonable to expect that taking a tree down, whether it is in your yard or on the city's right of way, it is going to cost between $800 and $1,500, per tree," Vozzo said. "Then, the more difficult it is to take the tree out, like near a building or a power line where there is more liability, the costs are going to go up very quickly."

The city's declaration, among other things, states, "as a result of the weather events, the weakened trees were attacked by invasive, damaging beetles which infested thousands of trees as they spread throughout the City, and while the destruction became evident immediately on some trees, as the Spring season approaches, the city is seeing an increase in the number of dead or dying trees around homes and City streets that, if not removed soon, will faIl."

Vozzo said he has heard the number of trees statewide that are being impacted by the problem is more than 12 million.

"Whatever the number is on public property, it is likely the same amount or more on private property," Vozzo said. "Many of these trees, we simply cannot leave them in place because the pose a danger to the public."

Newly elected Central District Public Service Commissioner De’Keither Stamps sounded the alarm in early January when ice, sleet and even snow hammered much of Mississippi.

"All of these trees that you see that are brown and are dying or are already dead, those are the ones that could come down first if we get any ice. People just haven't had the time across the state to deal with that just yet," Stamps said at the time.

While many of the trees may not have come down at the time, the trees are still an issue.

"They are going to start falling any day," Stamps said. "And that impacts us because when these trees start falling, they are going to fall on power lines. If we are talking about below-ground utilities, when the tree falls, the roots are going tear those lines and sewer lines and all of the broadband lines that have been run below ground. A tree root is going to find a gas line or any line in that right of way."

Stamps said that he sent a letter to Gov. Tate Reeves and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann in January about needing to declare a state of emergency in regard to this situation, but that it has not gained any traction.

The Clarion Ledger reached out to Reeves office Thursday morning but has not received a response.

"While Madison is having its issues, this is a problem all over," Stamps said. "It's going to be a problem in the Delta; it's going to be a problem throughout Central Mississippi."

Vozzo said this issue is going to become more of a problem day by day, and when asked how Madison will pay for the tree removal, he was hesitant.

"The reason you are getting a long silence from me is that I don't know (where the money is going to come from)," Vozzo said. "We are in a position where we are going to have to do something. We just don't know how we are going to fund it."

He said a quick glance across the airfield at the Madison Airport reveals hundreds of trees that have already died and are in need of removal.

"It's location after location where we have these problems,' Vozzo said. "It's everywhere in town and it's not just the City of Madison. It's all kinds of towns like Madison. It seems to me its a band across Central Mississippi, where it is the worst."

He explained that in talking with tree experts, he has been told that pine beetles are in the area every year, but that this year is different.

"The sap inside the pine tree is the natural defense of the tree against the pine beetles," Vozzo explained. "The drought affected the overall health of the trees and weakened its ability to produce the sap and to ward off the pine beetles. So the pine beetle population has exploded and further weakened the trees."

He said all of that means these trees are in danger of falling at any time and with the spring storm season upon us, the time is now to remove as many as possible before there is a larger disaster.

Private land owners across state

Meanwhile, Agricultural Commissioner Andy Gipson presented a letter to the legislature this week in hopes of coming up with a solution for private land owners who farm pine trees.

"This is the second largest industry in our state, and these beetles are like a wild fire sweeping across the state," Gipson said. "And if you think it is bad today, just wait until the fall. This is going to get worse. It's the equivalent of wild fire. It's just bugs instead of fire."

Gipson said there is an emergency tree disaster program that will help property owners recoup lost money from diseased trees. However, it is not a perfect solution.

"The land owner has to pay all of the costs up front and do all of the work, and then they can ask for re-imbursement," Gipson said. "But guess what? Those folks don't have that kind of extra money just laying around. They can't just cut the tress down, clean up their farm and send USDA a bill asking to be reimbursed."

He said the federal program for forestry lands will reimburse up to 75% of the losses.

"There's a gap, and there is nothing immediately available to help those folks that I am aware of," Gipson said. "And all of these trees have to come down. It has to be done to mitigate the coming spread of these beetles. Because that is coming."

Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith has proposed a bill at the federal level to provide special tax deduction provisions for private land owners, but that has not been signed into law.

So, Gipson is hopeful there can be help that comes from the state legislature.

"This has the potential impact the entire forestry business for a long, long time," Gipson said. "And then there is another great unknown. We don't really know how much hardwood damage there has been. It's just beginning to green up with spring, and we will know more when oaks and trees like that start growing their leaves. A lot of those are likely going to be hit too. Time will tell. But this truly is a public safety matter as much as anything else."