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Ash borers well on way to costing Chicago area millions

Published: Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 9:12 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

(MCT) — Two years ago, officials in Tinley Park learned that the emerald ash borer was gnawing through the village's ash trees. This winter they learned that the dime-sized beetle may also chew holes in the southwest suburb's budget: $4 million to $6 million to cut down and replace or chemically inoculate about 9,000 trees over the next eight years.

Add it to the ash borers' massive tab in the Chicago area and across the country.

In the 25 states now infested or predicted to be by 2019, the U.S. Forest Service estimates beetle-related costs will exceed $10 billion from 2009 to 2019. And even those billions are unlikely to stop the spread of the ash borer.

For towns large and small, from Connecticut to Kansas, the bill is steep and due almost immediately. Unlike the slow, easily amortized blight of tree-killing troubles like Dutch elm disease, ash borers kill more than 90 percent of the trees they infest, sometimes in little more than a year.

The ash tree is sturdy and good-looking, but a dead one quickly becomes mangy and brittle, and toppling trees and falling boughs can become a costly legal liability for towns.

"The cost is higher than any of us thought," said Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki. "When (the ash borer) was found, we knew it would be a problem, but not this extensive."

The village is looking for ways to pay to cut down some trees and treat others, possibly borrowing money and likely asking homeowners to chip in.

Jack Mitz, forester for Naperville, which spent $1 million in 2012 on treating and removing trees, compares the ash borer to a slow-moving storm.

"It's basically a natural disaster you have to manage. It's like having a tornado or hurricane coming through your community," Mitz said.

In Arlington Heights, officials faced with losing nearly 13,000 ash trees in short order opted last year to borrow $11.6 million just to pay for tree removal and replacement.

Village tax rates didn't rise because the borer borrowing coincided with the retirement of older bonds, but Mayor Arlene Mulder concedes that the beetle-specific borrowing basically amounts to a special tax.

"The staff knew we could not completely fund this," Mulder said.

Moving from tree to tree, ash borers can be expected to add territory at a pace of about half a mile a year from the site of an infestation. Ash logs or wood products that are transported out of areas the Forest Service has designated as "quarantined" have added to the spread.

"If you don't have them already, and you have a lot of ash trees, you should get ready," said Robert Haight, a researcher with the Forest Service. "The worst-case scenario is that all the North American ash trees are all going to die."

No money for dying trees

The ash borer infestation began in suburban Detroit sometime before 2002, likely in packing materials made from borer-resistant Asian strains of ash trees. The shiny green ash borer beetles likely were identified years after they arrived in the U.S., and communities stricken early in the infestation lost nearly all their ash trees, said Phil Nixon, an entomologist for the University of Illinois Extension.

The loss is noticeable.

From the 1950s on, ash trees were popular among developers and cities looking to replace elms felled by Dutch elm disease. They settled on ashes, ironically, because the genus was known for its resistance to disease and pests. In many suburbs that boomed in the post-World War II years, it's not unusual for a quarter of the trees to be ash.

"To developers, these were good trees to plant," Nixon said. "They weren't susceptible to disease, and, for lack of a better word, they had no known predators."

Introducing Asian wasp species that prey on ash borers may reduce the number of the beetles but will only slow their spread, and there seems to be nothing on the horizon that will eradicate the insects, Nixon said.

Pesticides injected under the bark can repel the beetles indefinitely, and costs of treatment are dropping, but Nixon, who serves on a state panel that helps communities plan for the ash borer, said the bugs are bound to continue their spread. Eventually, any area with a significant number of ash trees will be blighted.

"You'll have to treat the tree for 20 or 30 years before we know if (anti-ash borer efforts) have wiped (the pests) out," he said.

"I tell people, 'Use (pesticides) to slow them down, but eventually, you're going to have to cut down all your ash trees.'"

Not every town has the resources to respond.

Leaders in south suburban Robbins face budget deficits and unpaid bills dating back years. There's no money for consultants to look for invasive insects, much less millions of dollars to rip out and replace trees, said Village Administrator Napoleon Haney. Dying ash trees are just another form of blight in struggling communities, he said.

"I'm not even sure if we have (ash borers). I know we have dead trees. But honestly, I'm just trying to keep the doors open here," said Haney, who said the town's five-person public works crew removes dying trees, though there is no money to replace them.

"I understand the aesthetic issues. I'm just looking forward to the day when I can afford some new police cars. ... When your house is burning down, people don't run to a tree for help."

'Something missing'

In the Northgate subdivision in Arlington Heights, residents faced the prospect of losing nearly 650 ash trees in a neighborhood of 700 homes. The prospect of denuding the tree-lined streets of the subdivision shocked residents, said Laurie Taylor, neighborhood association president.

Hundreds of residents came to community meetings about the ash borer infestation, and most quickly became convinced there was no saving the trees for the long term. But losing so many trees before smaller, replanted trees were able to grow to a decent size would hurt property values.

Taylor and her neighbors collectively agreed — even residents with no tree on their property — to each pay $135 to treat every ash tree in the subdivision's parkways. She hopes neighbors will come together again when a second round of treatment is needed in two years, and again two years after that.

"We know eventually they're going to die anyway," Taylor said. "All we're trying to do is do a slow and methodical replacement so all of a sudden we're not naked."

In Wilmette, which in 2006 became one of the first towns in Illinois to discover the ash borer within its borders, the beetle battle is nearing the end. The village opted early on to begin culling all 3,000 ash trees on public property, said John Kemppainen, the village forester.

"We've taken down 2,000 trees in the last six years," he said. "We're down to the last little bit, with 700 or 800 left. We're kind of in the home stretch of this whole program."

Haight, the Forest Service researcher, said the $10.6 billion cost the agency has predicted for ash borer countermeasures doesn't include the costs that most concerned Taylor, declining property values for treeless neighborhoods or higher energy costs for homeowners who lose the summertime shade of towering ash trees.

Outside the Tinley Park house he has owned for 31 years, Simeon Timotheopoulos can see what Taylor means. Three towering ash trees that shaded the parkway in front of his house died over the summer and were cut down last year, Timotheopoulos said, and stumps of other ash trees dot the neighborhood.

"There's just something missing," said Timotheopoulos, who recalled his daughter having her photo taken under the three ash trees on her wedding day. "Even if we get new trees, to get back to what we had would be a long time."

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