Cut Your Losses

Minneapolis controls diseased trees with a chainsaw. But are they too eager with the blade?

When Jerrold Freitag and his wife were thinking of buying their home in northeast Minneapolis's Audubon Park neighborhood nearly six years ago, one of the first things that impressed them were the trees. Huge elms shaded both the front and back yards, running along both sides of the corner lot.

Today the back yard is awash in sunlight and Freitag is dripping sweat as he hammers some wayward boards into position on his back porch. In June, a crew from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board reduced the elm to just a trunk with a few severed limbs poking out from the top. Another group of workers will eventually be back to pull what remains of the tree from the ground and turn it into wood chips.

The fact that the tree that used to shade this spot was diseased didn't come as a surprise to Freitag. More than two years ago, fearing something was wrong with their elms, the couple called the park board's Forestry Department, which inspects, maintains, plants, and replaces all of the trees on city boulevards, asking for help. The department sent out an inspector who assured them that their trees were fine, Freitag recalls.

Obviously that wasn't the case: In May a forestry inspector marked one of the elms growing alongside the backyard, as well as a number of other large trees on his block, with a circle of orange spray paint and told Freitag only that it was "stressed" and needed to come down. Ever since then, he's wondered whether anything could have been done to prolong the life of his tree. If cost was an issue, he might have been willing to pay something toward nursing the sick elm back to health, rather than see it cut down.

In addition, Freitag is astonished by how much time elapsed between his phone call and the department's diagnosis. "We just wanted to get it handled so we could get new trees in here and get on with it. Now we have to wait to get a new tree until next spring and it will be small like that one," he complains, pointing to a linden planted on the boulevard near his back fence last summer. "I'll be dead and gone before that tree offers me any shade--and that's if it lives that long."

To homeowners, issues surrounding the care of the city-owned trees that grow on the boulevards in front of their property are as irksome as sidewalk assessments and alley paving projects. Heavy pruning by forestry crews each year often leaves neighborhood trees looking spindly and ridiculous. Losing a big tree means you're out not only shade and fall color but cash as well. Air-conditioning bills go up. And even a small tree can add a few thousand dollars of property value in the eyes of would-be homebuyers, real estate agents say.

Plenty of arborists are critical of the way in which Minneapolis deals with its trees and an equal number are complimentary, given the size of the task and the number of urban realities public foresters must take into account. The bottom line, they all agree, is that trees are a valuable asset to cities, but keeping them alive in a sea of asphalt is no easy task.

Ralph Sievert, director of the park board's Forestry Department, sympathizes with homeowners like Freitag. And he agrees that hacking down a lot of trees at one time in any neighborhood is never aesthetically pleasing. The park board is under contract to the city of Minneapolis to maintain the trees, and each year is given only so much money.

Once a tree is marked for removal, a notice is left on the homeowner's door telling them why. Most homeowners accept the Forestry Department's decisions regarding the fate of their trees, Sievert says. But some people want to hang on to a tree as long as they can. As long as it's not a danger to anyone, the department tries to work out a compromise. Eventually, he says, most trees marked for removal do come down. The park board will plant a replacement, although it may take a year.

While it's true that tending to the needs of sick trees rather than removing them might make city streets more attractive, the strategy is simply not cost-effective in light of the department's current budget. "There's a lot to be said for preventative steps like injecting trees against Dutch elm disease," says Sievert. "But right now we get about $7 million a year from the city. With that we remove between 2,000 and 3,000 trees, mostly from boulevards but also from parks. And we buy and plant about 3,500 new ones. We also send scouting crews out to inspect city trees and report back on their health. We remove stumps and prune. So for us, the best way to keep diseases from spreading is to cut down sick and rotting trees before illness spreads."

Ten years ago, in the wake of the Dutch elm epidemic that wiped out many of the state's elms, the city of St. Louis Park began helping homeowners inject elms with a fungicide called Arbotect 20-S. The injections can protect some species of elm against the disease for three years, when another dose is needed. It costs between $240 and $300 to inject an average-size tree. Under the subsidy program, the city pays 60 percent of that cost if the tree is on the boulevard and 40 percent if it's in a yard. Homeowners can either make payments to the city or have their portion of the cost included in their yearly property taxes.

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