Oak Park ash tree removal takes a breather

More than 500 trees cut down in 2011-2012

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

Judging by the freshly cut tall trees strewn across the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Berkshire Street, Monday morning, it appeared as though a thunderstorm had struck overnight.

The debris, however, came from a landscaping crew tackling removal of one of this season's last targeted groups of ash trees on village-owned property. The trees are infested with the emerald ash borer — the small, green Asian beetles that have created a massive problem for villages across the Midwest by hatching eggs and killing off thousands of trees.

The fight is far from over, though. In Oak Park alone there are expected to be 2,600 infested trees needing to be removed over the next 5-8 years, according to Village Forester Jim Semelka, who said the village is only removing trees that are visibly impacted.

"We're now in the tail end of [removal from] last season," he said, which puts the combined number of trees taken down in 2011-12 at 580. "We try to replace everything we remove as much as possible."

Roughly $75,000 has been budgeted for the emerald ash borer effort in 2012, a number similar to what was spent in 2011, Semelka said. Grant money is only available for tree replacement, not tree removal, but last year the village was not awarded any grant toward replacements.

As of Monday, only about 20 trees were left on the removal list, but soon the village's efforts will be shifted to tagging and making inventory of newly impacted trees. Those likely to be added to the coming year's list show symptoms like sparse sprouting or a sudden appeal among woodpeckers, who are masters at seeking the beetles' larva.

From now until October the village will tag trees that will likely start coming down next winter.

Semelka explained that the village is able to secure better pricing in the winter months when tree-trimming businesses hit a lull; therefore, those identified in the next wave will wait — unless a tree needs immediate attention.

"I'm concerned there will be a fairly steady increase," he said, and predicted anywhere between 500 and 600 more may be identified for removal.

Oak Park resident Keith Posson, who has seen many removed in his neighborhood, said he's not pleased with the amount of removal and is concerned that ash trees planted not long ago are being removed.

"It looks like they're taking down every single ash tree," he said. "No way everything is dead. … We're taking away from the canopy."

According to Semelka, there haven't been any Green Ash trees planted in his 14 years in the position, but he said the last White Ash trees were planted in 2005. That was, however, before the issue was well known to be problematic in the area.

The issue was first discovered three years ago in Oak Park and it's become too widespread to treat the trees, Semelka said. Both physically and financially, treatment isn't necessarily the best option, he added.

With more than 2,000 trees predicted to be infested and 7,000 potentially impacted trees on private property, the problem can't be treated.

"Ash is so overpopulated in the general makeup," he said. "Once you start, you kind of have to commit to never stopping. It's very fiscally hard to stop."

On a short-term basis the canopy of Oak Park will be thinner as the village combats this issue, Semelka said, but it will bounce back eventually once more trees are planted.

Semelka said they plan on replacing as many trees as can reasonably be maintained, which also entails diversifying the species so the emerald ash are less likely to return. Proper spacing is also key, he said, but he assured there's plenty of space for trees to replace Oak Park's coveted canopy.

In the meantime, as trees are removed, they will be put to good use and repurposed across the village – such as furniture, pallets and wood chips.

"Wood waste is a thing of the past," Semelka said. "We're trying to make it a resourceful process of renewal. Everything gets reused now."

Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

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