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Evanston TreeKeepers plan to help protect the city's trees from threats such as the invading emerald ash borers. Trees provide numerous environmental and social benefits to residents.

Evanston TreeKeepers volunteer to help save city’s ash trees

by Alan Yu
Nov 15, 2012

A group of Evanston residents plans to help protect the city’s trees and stem the tide of invasive emerald ash borer beetles devastating Illinois’ ash trees.

Evanston TreeKeepers held their first meeting on Wednesday to map out a public education program on how to care for trees. People would learn basic forestry techniques such as pruning, to help the parks and forestry staff at a time when emerald ash borers have destroyed more than half of Evanston’s ash trees and stretched the city’s forestry reserves.

Officials have yet to find a way to stop the beetles that invaded from China. The 35 city foresters who take care of the city’s more than 30,000 trees have been busy almost all year just removing the dead trees, said Paul D’Agostino, Evanston’s superintendent of parks, forestry and facilities management. If Evanston TreeKeepers could help take care of newly planted trees, city foresters can focus on preserving larger trees and tackling the backlog of trees that need to be planted, D’Agostino said.

“The last thing I want to do is have somebody say, ‘Fine, take my tree down. When am I going to get a new one?’ I have to tell them two or three years,” D’Agostino said.

Sadder still is that it costs less to replace trees than protect them with a pesticide. The city's budget doesn't cover replacing all the dead trees, let alone the cost of the expensive treatment, D’Agostino said. Evanston’s forestry department removed 500 trees last year and replanted 400, he said. The United States National Arboretum estimates the beetles have already killed more than 25 million trees nationwide.

But other protective measures are possible with the extra help of volunteers.

Evanston TreeKeepers, the first chapter of the Chicago-based Openlands TreeKeeper program, would spread the word about the importance of the city’s trees and help reduce the forestry department’s workload by taking care of newly planted trees.

When the city proposed cutting four forestry positions last year, several Evanston citizens volunteered to help and coordinate efforts with the city, said Wendy Pollock, the group’s organizer and the community engagement director for the upcoming PBS documentary The Truth About Trees.

Even though only one forestry position was ultimately cut, the volunteer group formed in any case.

“Being interested is fine, but they can’t just let people loose on city trees,” Pollock said. “It just seemed natural to ask, ‘Oh what could we do here?’”

The 23 Evanston residents who came to the meeting said they are eager to start saving the city’s trees.

“I feel extra enthusiastic to go out there and help prune, mulch the trees, whatever needs to be done,” said Kelsey Atkinson, a resident and recent graduate of Oberlin College. “I’m glad that there’s this enthusiastic environment of people here who are also excited to do the same.”

Residents cannot work on public trees without a permit, and they could get sued for working on private ones, D’Agostino said. However, they can learn about the symptoms of emerald ash borer infestation and report any infested trees to the city, he said.

The borers lay eggs in the trees, larvae eat through the trunk and beetles spread to other trees. Residents can have their own trees treated and are welcome to pay for the treatment of a tree on public property, such as one on the parkway in front of homes, Pesticide treatments cost $6 per diameter-inch of trunk a year and most ash trees range from 10 to 35 inches in diameter, D'Agostino said.

Volunteers can also help water and mulch trees on public property, which means adding a two to three-inch layer of woodchips, bark or manure on the roots without touching the trunk, to lock in moisture, provide nutrients and stop weeds. A lack of water stresses trees and makes them easy prey for insects such as emerald ash borer, he said.

Groups such as TreeKeepers can also educate other residents about the benefits of preserving trees, said Lydia Scott, community trees program manager at the Morton Arboretum.

“A lot of people living in residential areas don’t realize they have ash trees. They don’t even know what an ash tree looks like, so they don’t know what’s happening,” Scott said. “Obviously there are other life and death issues involved and that’s why some communities have had to cut back their funding towards trees, and why providing a volunteer base is important.”

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, reduce stormwater runoff and provide other environmental benefits. They also offer social benefits, such as reducing stress and helping patients heal, said Lynne Westphal, a presenter at the meeting and a research social scientist at the U.S. Forest Service’s research station in Evanston.

Patients who had gall bladder surgery suffered less complications and required less painkillers if they had a view of plants rather than a brick wall, according to a widely-cited 1984 study in Science based on the research of Roger Ulrich. Ulrich retired last year as a professor of architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M University.

“Roger Ulrich has found that looking at a painting or a photograph can produce many of the same responses. In a hospital, you may notice a lot of mediocre nature art up on the walls? That’s why,” Westphal said. “Now for a healthcare facility to be accredited, patients must have views of nature.”