Thursday, January 04, 2007

Beetle dooms suburb's ash trees

From the Chicago Tribune...

By Dave Wischnowsky
Wilmette is treating the nearly 2,900 ash trees on public grounds like the remnants of Christmas at a post-holiday sale: Everything must go.

In a drastic measure highlighting just how serious a threat many Illinois officials consider the ravenous emerald ash borer beetle to be, last month the village began cutting down ash trees—some sick but most healthy—that were planted in parks or along public parkways.
Ash trees on private property are not affected—yet. Village officials are waiving fees homeowners have to pay for tree removal and are asking state and federal governments to help residents and municipalities with the costs.

By 2012 the village plans to spend an estimated $2.5 million to remove and replace all 2,855 of its public ashes in an aggressive attempt to stymie the metallic-green pest. Nearby Winnetka says it is developing a plan to follow suit. But Evanston, the third North Shore community affected by the ash borer so far, says it is loath to cut down healthy trees.

Though some experts have said cutting down all ashes within a half-mile of an infested tree is the only way to prevent further infestation, the state has not made an official recommendation. Officials are evaluating the results of tree surveys conducted last year before determining the best way to combat the ash borer, said Warren Goetsch, the bureau chief of environmental programs with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
"The state and federal governments aren't in a position where we're telling communities to cut down healthy ash trees," Goetsch said. "Each community needs to look at the resources they have available and what challenges they may face in the future.

"But in the long-term, the ash borer could become a public safety issue, with dying and dropping trees. So the approach that Wilmette is taking may be the most responsible one."

The pest, discovered last summer in rural Kane County and on the North Shore, probably arrived from Asia in packing material. It already has killed nearly 20 million ash trees in five other states and Canada. There are more than 130 million ash trees in Illinois, and Wilmette officials said all cities need to brace for the bug.

"We're encouraging other towns to start thinking about this and budget for it," Wilmette Village President Chris Canning said. "We're also reaching out to the state and federal governments to create some kind of [financial aid] program with a long-term view for Illinois."

Since December, 44 ash trees have been felled within a half-mile radius of Hunter Road and Washington Avenue, where 16 infested trees were found in July. The village has budgeted $275,500 to take down 650 ashes this year.

Workers are expected to begin planting different species of trees in spring and fall. Staggering the work over six years spreads out the cost as well as the visual effect of erasing so many trees. As for trees on private property, village officials said they have jurisdiction over dying or diseased trees but are not forcing homeowners to cut down ash trees, healthy or otherwise.

"To the contrary, we've had homeowners calling asking when they can take down their own [ash] trees," Canning said. "They know that dead trees can be hazardous in storms."

State law says it's up to homeowners to pay for tree removal. But in an effort to encourage residents to remove ash trees, Wilmette has waived its $20 permit fee for trees affected by the ash borer.

Beyond that, village officials hope the Illinois General Assembly will set up a program to reduce tree-removal costs for homeowners and municipalities. Possible options include low-interest loans or grants and volume pricing, Canning said.

"I think those options are sure to be discussed and will become an issue for the next General Assembly," said Goetsch, who expects the state to consider a "master contract" through which tree-removal companies would bid for work in areas affected by the ash borer. That could lower the price to cut down a single tree because communities could essentially buy the services in bulk. Winnetka forestry officials said they are planning their own program to cut down and replace 1,500 public ash trees.

But in Evanston, where there are roughly 4,000 public ash trees, Doug Gaynor, the city's parks, forestry and recreation director, said he's hesitant to do the same. "There are a lot of things that need to be done before we make hard and fast plans," Gaynor said. "I'm not sure about just taking all the ash trees out.

"How do I know the ash borer is going to spread to all the trees in town? I'm not inclined to take out a healthy tree."

Edith Makra of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle said such sweeping measures are the likely reality in
communities affected by the ash borer. "From a management standpoint, it's pretty smart," she said. "Removing trees is going to be difficult for people, and expensive. But if you can space it out over time, I think that helps lessen the blow."


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