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Olson: One plan for saving ash trees

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The ash trees are dying.

Not sure what an ash tree looks like? That’s not surprising. If they needed a photo for the dictionary to put next to the entry for “tree,” they’d probably choose a photo of an ash tree. They’re that generic.

But they’re also useful, and they’re everywhere. Or they were, until they all started dying.

Ash trees grow well on parkways, which isn’t the case with every type of tree. They grow fast and they grow tall, making them good shade trees. When they’re cut down – as they have been in scores in towns such as Evanston – it shows.

The insect killing them is called the emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle from China that has infested the area.

Not everyone is resigned to this outcome, though. Dave Clanton, owner of Clanton Tree Company in DeKalb, is helping people and towns that want to protect their ash trees. He’s been treating trees in the Chicago area for years now, and on May 2012, he started treating ash trees on property owned by the city of DeKalb by injecting insecticide into the soil around them to protect against the ash borer.

Clanton got involved in summer 2011, not long after the City Council was warned by the public works department that it could cost about $1 million to cut down and remove all the ash trees on city property.

He’s known 6th Ward Alderman David Baker for years, and said Baker asked him about the issue.

“He said, ‘We don’t have to do that, do we?’ ” Clanton said. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

Clanton says he worked to convince city officials to try to save the trees. First he talked to the public works department. When the issue came before the City Council, he took the issue to the council, which eventually acquiesced to put the project out for bid.

“[Clanton] was convinced and convinced me that these ash beetles can be dealt with as long as you treat the tree before it’s fully infested,” Baker said. “What I tried to explain was that there was a different process than just cutting down the trees and we had probably one of the experts in the Midwest living here in DeKalb.”

It came down to math. Either have the ash trees treated with insecticide for about $25 a tree, or have them cut down for about $900 a tree. With roughly 1,000 trees to worry about, the council decided to take a chance on treating them for five years.

“They stuck their necks out and I’m really happy they did,” Baker said.

Clanton had the low bid on treating the trees – the council agreed to spend not more than $20,000 on treatments – and he says the pesticide applications are saving the trees in DeKalb. Instead of more than $1 million on tree removal, the city spent $75,000 during 14 months to treat and remove ash trees and will spend close to $40,000 this year.

When Clanton started treating trees in spring 2012, there were about 930 ash trees deemed desirable enough to save out of 1,400, Clanton said. A year into the treatment regimen, Clanton figures that all but 20 to 30 of those 930 he started with last year have survived.

Of course, that’s just one city. Neighboring Sycamore, home to many ash trees for now, is not going to treat the ash trees on its property. They’ve said there’s no proof it works.

Clanton says the trees have to be treated annually to continue to resist the ash borer. That’s a long-term obligation and who knows how long the city will want to continue it after its five-year experiment ends. Many private property owners will probably prefer to let nature take its course, and maybe plant a new variety of tree.

Are the treatments saving the trees in DeKalb, or just delaying the inevitable? Only time will tell. But for now, it seems to beat the alternative of paying to cut down and remove hundreds of mature shade trees from city parkways.

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• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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