Iowa cities struggle to remove dying ash trees

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — A three-story mature ash tree hovers above Sara Turnquist’s Iowa City property. It shadowed his kids’ play dates, neighbor hangouts and driveway basketball games for years.

The once succulent tree is dying from the invading insect the emerald ash borer, a fate faced by millions of other ash trees across the state.

“It’s just depressing,” Turnquist, a 48-year-old teacher, said of her dying tree. “It provided an environment for us to enjoy when it was hot, and it had a lot of appeal. We will miss it. »

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that more than a decade after Iowa’s losing battle with the emerald ash borer began, many cities are still scrambling to remove dying ash trees from public rights-of-way.

But the unknown number of ash trees on private properties – sometimes estimated to be three times the number on public properties – is the responsibility of the owners. And there is little or no funding or resources to help with withdrawal or processing costs.

As Iowans know full well after the 2020 derecho, the price of cutting down trees is often high. Bids for Turnquist’s shaft, slated for removal in October, ranged from $2,000 to $5,000.

While private homeowners may be hesitant to remove their dying ash trees due to cost, foresters and arborists warn that time is running out to remove the trees before they deteriorate into safety hazards.

“It’s important to get them out fairly quickly when they die if they’re in an area where they might run into something or hurt someone,” said Department of Natural Resources district forester Mark Vitosh. from Iowa. “They rather become critical quite quickly.”

Iowa has about 50 million ash trees in its forested areas and 3 million in its urban areas, Vitosh said. About 16% of public trees in Iowa communities are ash, although the species may make up 50% of canopies in some locations.

These canopies have been attacked by the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect native to Asia that was first reported in Michigan in 2002. It has since killed tens of millions of ash trees in at least 36 states.

The emerald ash borer was spotted in northeastern Iowa in 2010 and slowly moved west. Linn County confirmed its first case in 2015.

As of July, all but seven of Iowa’s 99 counties had confirmed emerald ash borer sightings.

The invasive insect kills ash trees by “cutting off their plumbing,” said state entomologist Robin Pruisner. Small, ball-shaped and shiny green, it feeds on the “pipes” that carry water and sugars through trees, gradually strangling plants.

When ash trees are infected with the emerald ash borer, they release moisture, said Cedar Rapids forestry operations supervisor Rick Newland. Tree conditions often do not change much during the first three to five years of infestation, but the effects intensify in years six and seven when plants become extremely dry and brittle.

At this point, the tree has become a safety hazard to its environment. Unlike elm trees infected with Dutch elm disease – which can maintain their structural stability longer – dead ash trees will begin to lose branches more easily.

As the wave of emerald ash borer infections began to sweep across Iowa, the state actively warned residents of the danger lurking in their yards. But the preparation costs were too high for some communities, said Emma Hanigan, urban forestry coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Treatments that repel emerald ash borer cost about $200, depending on the diameter of the tree, and additional doses are needed every two years. Tree removal bears the brunt of the financial burden, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on the location and size of the tree.

Condition also impacts price – more deteriorated trees will cost more to remove due to their fragile condition.

“It’s really important to get trees out when they’re like this,” Cedar Rapids City arborist Todd Fagan said, pointing to a dead ash tree being removed along a city road. Cut branches shattered as they hit the street in a flurry of dead wood.

“The longer you wait, the more it costs,” Fagan said.

There are no state or federal financial assistance programs for ash tree removal in Iowa, said Vitosh of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and it’s not covered by insurance. Local aid to private owners is rare.

In 2020, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimated that emerald ash borer infestations cost $27 million in losses to forest owners and wood product companies in the state, and $4.1 billion in dollars in overall losses in tree-derived community benefits, such as energy savings and property values. .

“It’s devastating to me as an expert,” Hanigan said. “I know how much trees benefit us…. I think it’s a little harder to know what we’re missing.

Many communities in Iowa are now in the midst of the aftermath of the emerald ash borer. About 5,500 ash trees have been removed so far from City of Cedar Rapids property, Newland and Fagan estimated.

The Des Moines Forestry Division felled at least 6,000 ash trees. It is not known how many were removed from private land.

In the wake of the carnage left by an invading pest, similar threats follow.

The spotted lantern, an invasive insect that feeds on a variety of plants, was first spotted in Iowa last month. And although the Asian longhorned beetle is currently only found west of Ohio, its appetite for maples and other hardwoods could further endanger the Iowa canopy if it arrives.

Maples make up about 30% of Iowa’s public trees, Vitosh said.

To combat these threats, tree replanting efforts are planting a diverse range of species to prevent devastation from other species-specific infestations and diseases, Hanigan said.

“It’s just another pest that popped up,” she said of the spotted lanternfly. “As the wood moves and we continue to have international trade, we’re just going to see more pests.

“You don’t know what you’re getting ready for next.”

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