Cut Your Losses

Daniel Ruen

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.

St. Louis Park has reduced its losses, says Mark Stennes, president of the Minnesota Society of Arboriculture (MSA), but the cost per tree is exorbitantly high. The loss rate of untreated trees is only about two percent, so out of 400 injected trees only eight were actually in danger of contracting the disease in the first place, he says. Given those odds, he believes Sievert is right when he says the best thing to do is to remove infected trees rather than treat them, at least when it comes to elms.

"Minneapolis has been more successful at [containing the disease] than any other city in the world, and has at least 100,000 mature, healthy American elm trees on public and private property throughout the city to show for it," Stennes says. "Fungicide injections have played no role."

St. Paul has done a good job of maintaining and replacing the city's stock of urban trees following the Dutch elm epidemic without the use of injections, says Chris Boche, an arborist with the St. Paul Park and Recreation Board. In part because of budget cutbacks the Forestry Department has endured over the last decade, the entire operation runs on less than half of Minneapolis's budget.

In Minneapolis, stumps are automatically removed when trees are cut down. Residents of St. Paul must make arrangements for that service and they must pay half the cost, Boche says. Also, the wait for replacement trees is currently at four years. Those who want a new tree sooner can get one within a year for $100. "We try our best to keep trees as healthy as we can," says Boche. "But Minneapolis has more bodies and more money and that makes a big difference."

While diseases and adequate resources to combat them are certainly a factor in determining the length of a tree's life, they are not the biggest contributor to the rising mortality rate of urban trees over the last century, says University of Minnesota tree scientist Gary Johnson. The biggest threat, he says, has been the shrinking space in which they are planted. Look at old photos of the city and you'll see streets shadowed under canopies of mature trees, he says. Then look down at the bottom of the pictures and notice the size of the boulevard they're planted in.

"At the turn of the century, boulevards weren't called boulevards," Johnson explains. "They were called tree lawns because they were devoted to the health of the trees. Some of them were 12 feet wide. Today boulevards are usually three feet wide or less, and trees have to compete with utility and water lines and streets expanding and sidewalks being repaired. There's nowhere for their roots to develop to support the tree as it grows to 70 feet tall, like they used to."

Across the street from Jerrold Freitag's house a different disagreement has temporarily spared an elm with a trunk as wide as a mid-size car that has already been marked for removal with orange spray-paint. The man whose duplex it shades disagrees with the inspector, Freitag explains, so he's seeking a second opinion in hopes of convincing the foresters to save it.

For his part, Freitag has suspected that his trees were sick since he bought his big yellow Victorian. He just didn't think he'd have so few options. "We had so much more shade when we moved in," he says. "It's not like our electric bills are going up because we don't have central air. But I'm sad about it anyway and I don't see that they're doing anything any less shortsighted in the future. This policy they have now just doesn't seem healthy for people or trees."

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