Stumped - Appraising the Tree That Isn't There
Saturday, February 14, 2015 at 11:38AM
Howard Gaffin

Originally published in TCIA Magazine.

The homeowner heard the sounds of chainsaws in the distance. She didn’t think too much of it until there was a knock on the door. A member of a tree cutting crew, working on the adjacent property, was seeking permission to access her property to clean up some of the brush they had created. The homeowner accompanied the worker to the sloping horse pasture behind the barn. There, in the middle of the pasture, lay a huge Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) in the process of dismemberment. Forty feet away, an equally impressive Red Oak (Quercus rubra) still stood, with 40 percent of the crown already removed by the aerial lift operator.

Oh, the horror. I can’t imagine the look on this poor woman’s face as she took in the sight. Not only were the fallen tree and other tree parts laying on her property, they were her trees!

I am by no means imaginable an appraisal expert, but have done enough of them to make some observations. Tree appraisals frequently have two things in common. One, they are often on or near property borders, and two, by the time you get to the site, a stump is often all you have to go on. I have become an adept stump photographer, and have a dazzling array of stump imagery in varying modes of undress.

Back in the day, this may have been a futile mission. One would have to hope some film-based image could be dug up with a blurry blob indicating the tree in the background, or that trees of the same age and species were found nearby. You may even have purchased aerial photos from the USGS and unearthed the stereoscope for that 3D experience.

The digital age certainly has its pros and cons, but in terms of tree appraisal, it is a blessing indeed. A recent case was settled before it even got going thanks to Google Earth. The tree in question that had been removed could be seen clearly through the Street View application, dead as a doornail.

Tree appraisal can be a daunting task. When I first started doing this, I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified. Eventually, the tree-guy persona took the reins (not necessarily a good thing). A 35 year arborist, I have sat through the seminars, kept up on current practices, and obtained accreditations. Surely, I could do this. I mean, how hard could it be?

To paraphrase Mr. Joe McNeil: “Plant appraisal. It ain’t rocket science, it’s harder”

It is often said that the Guide for Plant Appraisal, 9th Edition (the “Guide”), is the King James for the practice. Dog eared, coffee stained editions are found on every plant appraiser’s desk. The information within is essential, but as it is often stated, the Guide is just that, a guide. Appraisal is an opinion of value. True tree appraisal lies in using all available data, along with the Guide and other resources, to arrive at a rational, defensible value that can be quantified to a reasonable degree. Create a clear path and use reasoning that can be followed by others in arriving at the end figure.

When I arrived at the site, the disfigured Northern Red Oak still stood, a ghastly reminder of the carnage imposed. I met with the client to discuss the history of events, and the benefits these trees had provided her. All that remained of the Swamp white oak was an impressive stump, but it still had a tale to tell.

The first order of business was to positively identify the tree. As it had stood alone, I was able to use surrounding leaf and branch debris, along with bark and wood characteristics to positively identify the species. Photographs of the tree on the ground also helped with ID. As an added bonus, several other swamp white oaks were thriving nearby. I measured the diameter of the stump at its highest point. I would use this measurement, and correlate it with measurements taken from a nearby oak to estimate the DBH (diameter at breast height).

The size of the tree advocated the use of the Trunk Formula Method (TFM) as described in the Guide, to obtain value. TFM is used when a tree is too large to be replaced using conventional methods. TFM derives value based on the cost of the largest commonly available installed tree, which is then adjusted according to the subject trees’ size, species, condition, and location.

After identifying the species, it was time to turn to assessing Condition. I started, as always, with the root zone, moving up to the buttress and root collar, recording my observations. No other trees or remaining stumps were evident within the immediate area. Strong buttress root formations plunged into the earth along a rock wall separating two pastures where the root zone was fairly undisturbed. Consistent, symmetrical and healthy growth rings were evident throughout its 80 plus year life, with no signs of decay or wounding.

With the time machine in the shop, I would need to rely on other evidence to estimate the condition of the rest of the tree. Perhaps Doc Brown can get it running, but parts are difficult to find for the DeLorean, and I’m not sure he’s real anyway.

Fortune smiled down upon me. There, down the hill to the north, stood a beautiful line of Swamp White Oak, running east to west. The lobed leaves shimmered in the wind, the lighter colored undersides rendering a hallucinatory effect. Sixty five feet from my 32 inch stump, a specimen of 34 inches (measured at the same height) stood its’ ground. I would use this tree, along with those nearby, to estimate the DBH and Condition factor of the subject tree. I moved through the assessment worksheet, commenting on trunk condition, branching structure, and foliage health.


I then addressed the Location factors: Site, Contribution, and Placement. The Site and Placement factors did not require the physical presence of the rest of the tree to determine. However, due to placement, the major contribution was for aesthetic value. More information regarding the trees condition and appearance would be a valuable complement to the assessment.

While I am sure there are more sophisticated data sites available, a surprising amount of information is available through, Google Earth, Google Maps and Bing Maps. Google Earth offers features such as historical imagery or viewing the site at different times of day. Bing Maps offers a “Birds eye view” option providing an oblique view with surprising clarity. In many areas, Google Maps “Street view” application gives the viewer control of the camera, almost as if walking down the streets. You can literally zoom in to look down driveways or between houses to view backyard trees (close the curtains, you hot yoga enthusiasts). You will often be able to view your ghost tree from different perspectives, and at different times of year. Another important resource is the client. Ask if they have any pictures or video of the trees that may feature them directly or in the background.

Using the fore-mentioned resources, some pretty good views of the missing oak were realized. I was able to view it in dormancy from oblique angles and different directions, revealing a well-structured tree with classic symmetry. Photographs of the tree on the ground provided by the client displayed the color and density of the foliage at the time of the cutting. Using this data along with observations of existing trees on site, I felt confident in my evaluation of the trees’ condition and my ability to defend my opinions.

I have gone on to do more appraisals this way, the last three reports featuring many captivating stump photos. You will not always be afforded relevant imagery, but may be surprised at what is revealed, or what you may learn (beware, you “medical” marijuana growers).

Appraisal is an art and science. A resolve to remain unbiased in your opinions and forthcoming with deficiencies must be maintained to afford credibility. You will need perceptive skills of observation and an ability to utilize past experiences and acquired knowledge. Be confident, yet humble. Appraising large trees is a challenge, especially if they’re not there.

Article originally appeared on Gaffin Tree, Certified Arborist, Consulting Arborist (
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