Terry Phillips took picture after picture as the trunk of an oak tree next to his house was sawed off and lifted away by crane.
It was the last of two giant red oaks to be removed from his backyard as part of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s latest effort to prevent the spread of the deadly oak wilt fungus, and the sixth to be removed since 2009.
“We had a backyard that had shade — beautiful shade — and now it’s not going to have any,” the 73-year-old Somerset Lane resident said Tuesday. “And it’s a change in the environment.”
The two trees had to be removed after testing positive for the fungus in the fall. Crews also worked to remove 16 mature red oaks within a 150-foot radius — which encompassed three Somerset Lane properties and the large wooded area behind them — to prevent the disease from spreading through the roots.
“What happens with the oaks is their roots graft together and the fungus can spread through the root grafts,” said Dan Gaidasz, senior forester for the state DEC.
The goal is to keep the disease from spreading to the area’s many oak trees, Gaidasz said.
The fungus is most prevalent in the Central and Midwestern states and was first discovered in New York in Phillips’ Glen Oaks neighborhood in 2008.
“The key was to get this done before any spores come out of the trees and potentially spread to any other red oaks,” he said. “There’s a lot of oak, hence the name, Glen Oaks. The town itself has a very high population of oaks.”
Gaidasz said all 18 trees were on track to be cut down Tuesday. Today, crews will turn the removed tree bits into wood chips, clean branches from the yards and apply topsoil where it is needed.
The tree stumps will be treated with a pesticide, and once tests show that the fungus is completely gone, crews will grind down about half of the stumps — those on the lawns of Glen Oaks residents, Gaidasz said.
The work is being done by Downes Tree Service of Hawthorne, N.J., the same company that removed roughly 75 oaks in the Glen Oaks neighborhood in 2009.
“So far, it’s going very well,” Gaidasz said. “Our main objective is to minimize impact on the properties.”
The DEC paid the company $55,000 to complete the work, Gaidasz said. Downes is a subcontractor of the state’s contractor, Cutting Edge of Lake George.
After the two infected oaks were removed, Downes workers and DEC staff took turns counting the rings on the stumps to learn their ages. The larger tree in the center of the yard — the first to come down — was about 65 years old. The other, which stood close to the back of Phillips’ house, was about 50.
“Everybody thought they might have been a little bit older, but apparently it was a really good growing site, because if you look at the rings, they’re really big,” Gaidasz said.
The lifespan of the two trees was extended five years, as the DEC wanted to cut them down in 2009. The previous effort to prevent the spread of the fungus resulted in the removal of 75 trees, including four smaller red oaks on Phillips’ property.
But Phillips fought to keep the two trees standing and the agency agreed to spare them after he signed a three-year contract stating he would trench around his yard and cut the trees down if they contracted the disease.
Phillips said he spent $2,500 building the trench.
Phillips first noticed that the larger of the two mature red oaks was starting to wilt — a sympton of the fungus — in August, and reported it to DEC.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed, but I did all I could do to save them,” said Phillips, who has lived at 3 Somerset Lane since 1976. “At this point, it’s like a family member that got sick — there’s nothing else you can do.”