Emerald Ash Borer a multi-million dollar problem for Nebraska cities and towns

An ash tree marked for removal in Plattsmouth's Oak Hill Cemetery (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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March 13, 2017 - 3:49pm

The Emerald Ash Borer is here, and will likely kill millions of Nebraska ash trees in the next decade. Mike Tobias reports on the impact this tiny insect will have on Nebraska cities and towns.

For years a massive ash tree has shaded the south edge of the City of Plattsmouth’s Oak Hill cemetery. It rises 40 feet above the ground and seems just as wide. The tree is old but healthy, shading the Seiver, Hudson and Glazebrook headstones, among others. In the next week or so, the city is going to cut it down.

The ash tree in Plattsmouth's Oak Hill Cemetery that is scheduled for removal (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Plattsmouth has about 100 ash trees on city property, and many more on residential property throughout the city; most will be killed by the Emerald Ash Borer (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


"What should a homeowner do about Emerald Ash Borer?"

"If a homeowner has an ash tree that's a small ash tree right now, or a very large over-mature, declining ash tree, they should have those removed and they should replant them with another species," said Scott Josiah, Nebraska state forester and director of the Nebraska Forest Service. "ReTree Nebraska has a list on its website of 17 for 2017, 17 underutilized species that you can use to avoid this overplanting of one species and diversify your forest. They can choose from those species choices. But there's no sense investing a lot of money in injections on a very large mature or over-mature declining tree, because it just won't survive anyway over the long run, so you might as well just plant something else. It's those middle-size trees that it's kind of a decision point, where do you treat them or not. If the EAB is found within 15 miles of your location, you should probably consider treating the trees. Again, high value trees, especially if they're protecting your house from the southerly or westerly sun, because those trees are really saving you a lot of money in terms of air conditioning costs. So if there are large shade trees that are shading your house, I would say go ahead and treat those trees. Those are the most valuable to invest in treatments."

CLICK HERE for Emerald Ash Borer information from the Nebraska Forest Service


Related NET News Stories

"Nebraska Gears Up for Tree-Killing Insect" (July 2016)

"Experts, Lawmakers Prepare for Possibility of Emerald Ash Borer in Nebraska" (May 2015)

“That tree is huge,” said Plattsmouth City Administrator Erv Portis, “and it's going to take a couple thousand dollars to take it out and we're going to lose certainly that part of the canopy, and we're going to have to hire somebody who really knows what they're doing to take that out.”

But better now than later. The tree is encroaching on a few headstones. But it will also likely die soon. So will a hundred other ash trees on city property like the cemetery, and parks and rights-of-way. So will 256,000 more public property ash trees in Nebraska, and another 640,000 on residential property, and more than 40 million in forest areas.

State Forester Scott Josiah says a lot of trees are going to die because of a tiny bug from China, the Emerald Ash Borer.

“It's just this slow burning disaster that you hear about in various places for a while, and then all of a sudden it explodes on the scene and you have thousands or tens of thousands of trees dying all at once,” Josiah said.

Josiah says the Emerald Ash Borer (or EAB) likely made the trip from China to Michigan on wood pallets in the late 1990s. In three years it killed six million ash trees in Michigan, while quickly spreading to other states. It was just a matter of time before it hit Nebraska, and EAB was discovered last summer in the Omaha area and Greenwood.

“It's pretty unselective. It kills almost all of the ash species that are found in North America,” Josiah said.

Because it takes a while to find the bugs, Josiah said that means EAB has probably been in Nebraska longer and is already in other places. “And then from that point, seven or eight years from that, 80 percent of the trees are dead in a community,” Josiah said. “So it's that rapid once it happens.”

It’s expected to be a $275 million problem facing Nebraska cities and towns. That includes removal, replanting and in some cases treatment that won’t save trees but will prolong life so the impact is spread out over a longer period of time. Josiah said in Michigan where EAB hit earlier municipal tree budgets doubled and tripled as a result.

Back to Plattsmouth, Portis said regardless of cost, dead and dying trees have to be removed.

“They’re going to have to come out. They’re a liability if we do not,” Portis said. “Once we are aware of a tree on public property that's dead or dangerous, we've got an obligation to take it out because if it falls and hits somebody, or hurts somebody or damages property, that's our responsibility.”

His city’s budget includes a few thousand dollars a year for trees. But each ash tree that dies will cost about $2,000, partially because many are very large and hard to get to. Portis could ask for more tree money in the Plattsmouth city budget, but dealing with EAB doesn’t mean other needs go away.

As we talked outside city hall, he pointed to the fire department across the street. “We need to buy some new stretchers that will range between $15,000 and $20,000, depending on what you need. Which is more important? Taking trees out or buying those stretchers? Buying a police car, taking the trees out? Those are the kids of decisions that are going to have to be made here in the years to come.”

Portis also told his story at a Legislative hearing for a bill, LB 71, that would provide $3 million a year to help cities and towns pay for ash tree removal, disposal and replanting. 

“With all factors involved in a natural disaster of this magnitude, it is estimated to cost the City of Omaha around $19 million,” City of Omaha forester John Wynn told lawmakers, noting the city was already removing and treating ash trees. “Another challenge that we face is the overwhelming amount of private property-owned trees that our code enforcement inspectors will need to deal with,” Wynn added. “Thousands of additional tree complaints will be added on top of the already 13,000 complaints they get annually. This is another huge safety concern that we’ll be dealing with since some homeowners will not be able to afford the cost of a removal.”

“In Lincoln we have about 10,000 street trees that are ash trees and another 2,000 ash trees in our parks,” testified Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler. “And so the overall problem is estimated at this point to be a $30 million problem over 15 years.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many community leaders throughout Nebraska, and I always ask about their readiness for the impact of EAB,” Lon Nutter, president of the Nebraska Arborists Association, said at the hearing. “Overwhelmingly the answer has been they are doing very little or even nothing to prepare for the invasion, and these are mostly smaller communities. And when I ask why nothing’s been done, the answer is always funding. They tell me it’s hard enough to find money to fix potholes, let alone fund the removal and replacement of hundreds of trees.”

The bill that would provide funding to help deal with the ash tree problem is currently waiting for an Appropriations Committee vote.

Josiah said one of the lessons learned from places where EAB struck earlier is that getting ahead of the crisis is important. “Sometimes their costs double because they never get ahead of that exponential growth curve, so they're constantly fighting a losing battle,” Josiah said. “There are too many trees dying all at once. They don't have the capacity to deal with it. There's a supply and demand in terms of pricing for tree removals and ultimately it costs them a lot more.”

Portis knows better than many what the aftermath of EAB will look like in Plattsmouth and other Nebraska communities. He was working in Michigan when EAB first hit that state. “Old, established neighborhoods where you had tree-lined boulevards, trees are gone and what you see now is a neighborhood as it looked like before the trees were planted, and then to make up, three and four inch trees not yet established. It's a huge difference,” Portis said.

Portis said Plattsmouth won’t spend money treating trees to prolong their life and spread out the cost. Instead they will take trees down as they need to. “So we'll spend probably a couple thousand dollars taking that tree down, and then more money trying to establish it. Multiply that by 100 or more trees. You know, for a small town, that's a lot of money.”



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