How Trees Are Damaged During Construction

Physical Injury to Trunk and Crown. Construction equipment can injure the aboveground portion of a tree by breaking branches, tearing the bark, and wounding the trunk. These injuries are permanent and, if extensive, can be fatal.

Cutting of Roots. The digging and trenching that are necessary to construct a house and install underground utilities will likely sever a portion of the roots of many trees in the area. It is easy to appreciate the potential for damage if you understand where roots grow. The roots of a tree are found mostly in the upper 4-16 inches of the soil. In a mature tree, the roots extend far from the trunk. In fact, roots typically are found growing a distance of one to three times the height of the tree. The amount of damage a tree can suffer from root loss depends, in part, on how close to the tree the cut is made. Severing one major root can cause the loss of 5 to 20 percent of the root system.

Another problem that may result from root loss caused by digging and trenching is that the potential for the trees to fall over is increased. The roots play a critical role in anchoring a tree. If the major support roots are cut on one side of a tree, the tree may fall or blow over.Less damage is done to tree roots if utilities are bored under a tree rather than across the roots if applicable.

Soil Compaction. An ideal soil for root growth and development is about 50 percent pore space. These pores the spaces between soil particles are filled with water and air. The heavy equipment used in construction compacts the soil and can dramatically reduce the amount of pore space. This compaction not only inhibits root growth and penetration but also decreases oxygen in the soil that is essential to the growth and function of the roots.

Smothering Roots by Adding Soil. Most people are surprised to learn that 90 percent of the fine roots that absorb water and minerals are in the upper 4 to 12 inches of soil. Roots require space, air, and water. Roots grow best where these requirements are met, which are usually near the soil surface. Adding soil over the root system or increasing the grade smothers the roots. It takes only a few inches of added soil to kill a sensitive mature tree.

Exposure to the Elements. Trees in a forest grow as a community, protecting each other from the elements. Forest trees grow tall, with long, straight trunks and high canopies. Removing neighboring trees or opening the shared canopies of trees during construction exposes the remaining trees to sunlight and wind. The higher levels of sunlight may cause sunscald on the trunks and branches. Also, the remaining trees may be more prone to breaking from wind or ice loading due to no protection of removed neighboring trees.