Dutch elm disease is killing dozens of stately old trees in the Midwest this summer. Many people say they regret losing the beautiful old trees. It changes the way a place looks and feels for years to come. Some people are willing to fight and pay to save the elm trees in one Chicago suburb. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jody Becker reports:
Dutch elm disease is killing dozens of stately old trees in the Great Lakes region this summer. Many people say they regret losing the beautiful old trees. It changes the way a place looks and feels for years to come. Some people are willing to fight and pay to save the elm trees in one Chicago suburb. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jody Becker reports:
When Hollywood producers come looking for the perfect leafy suburb, they often wind up in Evanston, Illinois. This summer’s Tom Hanks flick “The Road to Perdition” was shot here. Filming almost hit a glitch…when Dreamworks suggested removing an old tree to make way for a driveway, the city balked. The scene was filmed; the tree stayed.
Evanston has dozens of trees at least a century old; and some even older than that.
Today, Evanston residents are even fighting a directive from the state’s Department of Transportation to replace obsolete traffic lights because it might mean uprooting some trees. So Evanston’s city Arborist Paul D’Agostino clearly has a rough job: he’s in charge of cutting down trees in a city of tree huggers.
“I’ve had to console people who were crying and hugging their tree and convince them that we were doing the right thing, that there was no choice in the matter.”
Like a handful of tree studded suburbs around Chicago and dozens of cities around the Great Lakes region, Evanston is experiencing a sad summer as Dutch elm disease claims dozens of trees more than half a century old and up to 70 feet tall.
Already more than one hundred Evanston elms have been found to have the killer fungus, and D’Agostino expects the toll to exceed two hundred. Once infected, a tree quickly begins to die…as the fungus blocks the vascular system that delivers water and nutrients to branches and leaves.
D’Agostino explains, standing near two dying elms in front of the Evanston Police Department…
“Both of these trees are in my estimation probably about 40 years old. These are pretty far along now in showing signs of disease…but the typical symptoms of yellowing and flagging leaves has now progressed to dead leaves and bare branches. We’ve got dying sucker growth along the main trunk which means the disease has spread into the main trunk and into the roots, so there’s no curing this tree at this point. The only way to solve this problem now is to remove the tree so it doesn’t spread to other nearby elms.”
(sound of sawing trees)
So five days a week, three crews of three men each are out on Evanston streets, taking down very old, very tall trees.
(sound of chain saw and crash)
For this relatively affluent, leafy suburb defined by its generous trees, the return of Dutch elm disease brings back bad memories of summers nearly 30 years ago, when hundreds of trees were cut down, destroying the canopies of tree tops that shade many of Evanston’s streets.
Still, there are 27,000 trees on city property in Evanston, and D’Agostino estimates three times that many on private property.
Today the suburb’s green and shade is created by a careful mix of hybrids and hardier trees, including Kentucky coffee, linden, gingko, honey locust and horse chestnut.
And the city is moving ahead with plans to continue replanting with diverse species to avoid future epidemics.
But ever a hotbed of activism, Evanston environmentalists of every stripe are on the case, badgering officials to do more than just identify and remove diseased trees.
Many want the city to inoculate the elms against the fungus.
“I’m a conservative republican, not at all a tree hugger. Al Gore and I would not mix ”
Virginia Mann has successfully organized the 13 other homeowners on her block to foot the bill to inject the elms on their street.
There are nine healthy elms on the block, and Mann and her neighbors have decided to adopt and inject three trees each year, at a cost of about $600 per tree.
“I know they add value to my community, I know they add value to my property, and I
know they keep my cooling costs down and I know there’s nothing I can do to replace them. So if you don’t take care of them, that’s it, they’re gone.”
While prognosis for the inoculated trees is excellent, there are no guarantees.
Dutch elm disease is spread both by beetles who carry the fungus on their hairs, and through root grafts between neighboring trees.
There is no way to protect the trees from root grafts. No one is sure why the disease is back and moving so aggressively.
Some citizens say, though inoculations can’t guarantee saving a tree, with only about 3,000 elms left in Evanston they’d rather try, than accept what the city officials seem to believe is the inevitable demise of the species in their suburb.
“Well, you can see my tree suffered an amputation this year.”
Mimi Peterson’s front porch on Ashland Avenue is shaded by a tall sturdy-looking survivor.
“It’s one of the few elms left on the block. You can also see across the street where we lost a really huge one. We’ve already lost nine trees on the block.”
She is well known in town for raising her voice as an advocate for trees; five years ago she hounded the city into more routine tree trimmings.
Now Peterson’s spearheading a group called TREE…To Rescue Evanston Elms, looking to suburbs like nearby Hinsdale…a place with more elm trees and a more aggressive Dutch elm disease prevention program.
Peterson says she agrees that diseased trees should go…but more needs to be done to protect still healthy elms.
Mostly Peterson’s group wants the city to spend more time and money looking for trees to save rather than trees to cut.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jody Becker.