A destructive Asian beetle has run wild through the Village of Oak Park over the past two years, and a tree species may be on its way toward extinction locally.

Starting next week, a village contractor will begin removing about 250 ash trees in Oak Park, located on the public parkway between the street and the sidewalk. Each of those trees has been infected by the emerald ash borer, a beetle that lays its eggs in the bark, eventually leading to the suffocation of the tree.

The mass removal will leave Oak Park with about 2,350 ash trees on the public parkway, according to Jim Semelka, the village forester. At this rate, the village’s ash population could be wiped out in the next 10 years.

“It’s going to be devastating to our urban forest,” said Pat Cassin, crew chief for the village’s forestry department.

The emerald ash borer was first discovered in Oak Park in July 2008, and in River Forest shortly after. The baleful bug was spotted in the U.S. in 2002 and has spread to some 14 states, killing tens of millions of ash trees, according to the website www.emeraldashborer.info. And the wildfire-like spread of the beetle has led to federal quarantines and fines to prevent the transport of ash wood.

Village foresters identified the 244 infected ash trees during the summer of 2010, according to Semelka, tagging them with a white dot for removal. Common signs of infestation include “die back” (where the tree starts dying from the top down), shoots of new leaves coming from the base of the tree and D-shaped holes from which the adult beetles exit.

The village board approved a $75,000 contract with Homer Tree Care in November to have the infected ash trees removed. After some delays, the Lockport-based company is expected to start its work next Monday, said Semelka, and they hope to finish by the end of March, before the ash borer starts its “flight season.”

Semelka said you can treat trees that have been infested by the beetle, but it requires constant care and only prolongs the plant’s death. So the village is focusing its resources and dollars on just removing trees that have already been hit.

“It’s going to be so widespread so quick and I think you have to kind of draw the line somewhere,” he said.

Oak Park was also hard hit in past decades by the Dutch elm disease which, at its height, led to the removal of 1,000 elm trees a year according to Semelka. As many as 200 elm trees will be leveled in Oak Park this year because of the ailment. But while tree farmers have grown elm species that are resistant to Dutch elm disease, every ash species is susceptible to the emerald ash borer, leading to the current moratorium on planting ash trees.

Semelka hopes to plant between 200 and 250 new trees this spring to replace ones lost to disease and storm damage. Oak Park is applying for a federal grant to help seal up the wound caused by the ash borer. About 100 communities are competing for the $1 million pot of money, and the village should know by Feb. 18 whether it’s getting a piece of the pie.

Homer Tree Care will likely grind up the leveled ash trees for mulch, according to Semelka. Residents who suspect that an ash tree on their private property is infected can call the Public Works Department at 708-358-5700 to assist in making the diagnosis. The property owners is expected to pick up the tab for a removal, which varies in price depending on the size and location of the tree, said Cassin.

River Forest public works officials did not return calls seeking comment. In 2008, the village estimated that it had 1,200 ash trees on public property. Residents are asked to call the village at 708-366-8500 if they discover the metallic green beetle.

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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