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Towns Alone in Emerald Ash Borer Fight

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No matter where you are in the Chicago area, you’re pretty close to an ash tree. There are more than two million of them, and if a tiny bug gets its way, almost every one of those trees will be dead in a few years. The emerald ash borer has now been confirmed in every county in the region. Nonetheless, each community seems to be pretty much on its own in attacking the scourge.

TRESOUTHICK: Jim Tresouthick: if you can just imagine losing these trees what this neighborhood will look like, they’re all up and down this street.

Jim Tresouthick’s in a tough spot. He and three others are the entire forestry department in south suburban Homewood, and the Emerald Ash Borer has clobbered their area hard. After consulting the Morton Arboretum and state and federal experts, he came to a hard decision, and the village Board agreed.

TRESOUTHICK: We’re gonna remove every ash tree off the parkway in four years.

They’re gonna start in October, and by 2011 they’ll have removed all 2,582 ashes from their parkways. They’ll replace them, but the two-to-three-foot high saplings they’ll put in will leave a generation-long hole in the sky.

Tresouthick’s taking me into a wooded area of Scandia Park to see a tree stump. It was the first tree confirmed in the village. Now its neighbors are being used as test trees to study the beetles.

TRESOUTHICK: We look inside the cambial layer, where the xylem and phloem is…
DAVIS: So how does that, what kills the tree?TRESOUTHICK: It’s the feeding larvae. The larvae eats the living tissue under the bark. And basically girdles the tree if you can imagine feeding larvae are just wrapping a tight noose around the neck of a tree. Slowly, choke it off.

The ash borer hits trees the same way, but it’s hitting communities differently. While many smaller municipalities like Homewood are opting for complete removal of ash trees, that doesn’t seem to be the philosophy in the City of Chicago.

LOUGH: Not every tree will be in a condition to save, but whatever trees we can save, we’re gonna try to keep.

Senior City forester John Lough has taken us to one of Chicago’s test trees, this one near Foster and Oak Park Avenues. About six weeks ago, they hung a very weird contraption up in the branches.

LOUGH: In fact the trap was dubbed the Barney Trap because it’s big and purple.
DAVIS: As he’s coming out of the bucket with it now there’s a lot of stuff on that trap.
LOUGH: There sure is, and that’s what it’s supposed to do, so we’re gonna have a look and see if we can find any beetles.

With tweezers and plastic bags, Lough plucks a couple of dozen carcases from the sticky goo.

LOUGH: All right, if you look here, this is a questionable beetle…

It’ll take a few days for the lab to verify it, but these guys already know there are Emerald Ash Borers in this tree. They can see the woodpecker damage, unusual sprouts coming out of the trunk and low branches, and very thin foliage in the upper parts of the tree. The city just cut down its first borer infested trees a couple of weeks ago, outside the IIT campus. But to date, the Bureau of Forestry has been trying to steer away from complete removal, at least in part because they have 95,000 ash trees in the parkways alone. And they’re putting a lot of hope into a brand new injectable chemical called “Tree-Age”. Malcolm Whiteside runs the forestry bureau.

WHITESIDE: So we don’t want to go out and just start, y’know, hacking away and removing every tree based on infestation, if we can save them, that’s gonna be our first priority - and that’s our policy is just preserve

Preserving will cost a lot at least two to six million a year for a decade or more. But the City, with its bigger staffs and deeper pockets, thinks it might be able to battle the borer to a standstill. Protect the older, more valuable ashes until some kind of cure comes along.
MARKA: I think that chemical treatments are probably not going to be successful on a large scale in the long term.

Edith Makra is The Morton Arboretum’s point person for Ash Borer in the region. She’s been pulling together planning meetings for all the area foresters. She’s concluded that staged removal and replanting’s the best option.

MARKA: It makes sense, from a forestry standpoint, it’s a good, sound management decision. The public doesn’t always tolerate good, sound management decisions. And I think what fits a community best is what their residents want.

And that’s why this is a political, as much as a scientific, decision. Makra says to date only about 15 of the area’s 270 municipalities have developed action plans, and some towns are still utterly unprepared. Some, like Palatine, are burdened with seventies-era subdivisions that are almost all ash. One of them is 81 percent. Palatine’s plan – remove and replace them all.

So far we’ve been talking street trees. Ninety percent of ashes are in parks, golf courses, forest preserves and people’s yards. The costs over the next few years will be staggering.

DAVIS: so we may have to spend a billion dollars to cut down 20 percent of our trees.
MARKA: Yes, I think it could cost easily that kind of money. A disturbingly high figure. That is unanticipated and for the most part goes for something that isn’t very rewarding.

Jim Tresouhtick, the forester in Homewood, says this problem’s just too big for any one town to handle. The regional group’s trying to get money for low-interest loans to help the poorer suburbs, and Makra says the feds sent ten million dollars to Illinois, but it’s been dissipated in state bureaucracy and none of it has reached any municipality.

There’s one more stop on our Emerald Ash Borer Tour.

CANNING: When we first began to survey the village of Wilmette, and looked at a map, I realized, Oh wow, I’m within the zone where there could be emerald ash borer.

Little did he know. Wilmette’s where the region’s very first confirmed beetle sighting happened, and he’s President of the Village Board. He was so in the zone, he lost five big ashes on his own property last year. Wilmette has also decided to take down all 2,855 its ashes, probably over the next five or so years. But there is this one …

CANNING: I can tell you when I look up at other trees throughout the village they don’t look anywhere as healthy as this ash tree.

The tree Canning’s talking about, just north of B’Hai Temple, is the largest, and probably oldest, Green ash of all the 130 million in Illinois. It was at least twenty years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

CANNING: We hope that we can help the tree out and make sure that it survives the little emerald ash borer. Because if there’s one tree that we’re gonna make a last stand on, this would be the tree.

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