A cute little beetle is about to raise hell in Tulsa.
The emerald ash borer arrived in the United States in 2002 and has been found in more than 20 states, including every state surrounding Oklahoma save New Mexico, according to Steve Grantham, a certified arborist and executive director of Up With Trees.
So it won’t be long before the emerald ash borer crosses the border and visits Oklahoma. In fact, it might be here already, Grantham said.
“Over time, it will probably affect every ash tree” in Tulsa, he said. “I mean, there are some people who are saying ashes in North America will basically be extinct.”
City Councilor Anna America said the city expects the beetle to arrive soon.
“You can’t predict it exactly,” she said. “But we’re figuring within, you know, maybe two years, we could potentially be hit pretty hard.”
The emerald ash borer is believed to have travelled from Asia to the United States on wooden shipping containers, according to the web site emeraldashborer.info. Since arriving in southeastern Michigan, the beetle has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in the United States and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and mitigation expenses.
Grantham said the bug is likely transported from state to state by campers who unwittingly take it along for the ride when carrying firewood to their campsites.
“It skipped from Kansas City to Boulder, Colo.,” Grantham said. “Somebody had to move firewood.”
There are an estimated 200,000 ash trees in Tulsa. That’s about 4 percent of the city’s 5.3 million trees, according to preliminary findings in Up With Trees’ Urban Forest Master Plan. If even 10 percent of those 200,000 trees are on public property, Grantham noted, that would be 20,000 trees the city would have to remove and replace, or try to protect.
An average-size ash tree would cost a minimum of $300 to $500 to remove, while treating a tree to stave off infection would cost about $150 a year, Grantham said. Even assuming the city could get a better price on tree removal or tree protection than an individual property owner, the potential public investment could still be hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more.
Here’s how the emerald ash borer destroys ash trees: The bug bores through the bark of a tree, where it lays eggs. The larvae then start eating away at the vascular tissue of the tree, cutting off the flow of water from the roots of the tree to the leaves at the top. It also stops traffic in the other direction, cutting the flow of nutrients from the leaves to the root system.
The tree is “basically decimated, so it just starts dying back, and it becomes very brittle,” Grantham said.
Typically it takes two to five years for the tree to die if it is not treated, Grantham said.
The City’s Plan
The good news for Tulsans is that city officials are already planning for the catastrophic event. A small group of city councilors, including America, Phil Lakin and G.T. Bynum, began preliminary discussions on the matter two weeks ago.
Bynum, who will become Tulsa’s 40th mayor in December, said the city’s trees are one of the things that make the community unique.
“The silver lining is we know it is going to happen, unlike an ice storm that just creeps up on you overnight,” Bynum said. “We know this is coming in advance and can prepare.”
America said it’s unlikely the city would try to treat ash trees on public property because the process can be expensive and comes with no guarantee. Of course, if the ash tree had a special significance in the community, like the Council Oak, the city would do what was necessary to save it, America said.
It is possible the city could identify an ash tree or a (grove) of ash trees on public property with special significance that would be maintained, but that is more likely to be the exception than the rule.
“Bottom line, I think almost every city (dealing with this issue) has said we might protect a few trees but we for the most part are going to just move forward knowing we are going to lose most of these trees,” she said.
The first objective of the working group is to determine how many ash trees are on public property. Grantham said only eight percent of Tulsa Park’s Department’s 14,000 trees are ash. But the city has many more in medians and rights of way, America said.
Once city officials know how many ash trees it will be responsible for, they will begin to formulate a plan to address the problem and fund it. A public information campaign will also be a big part of the city’s effort, America said.
“We want to do as much education as possible so the citizens understand how to identify if they have ash trees and to sort of understand what they are likely to face in the next couple of years,” America said.
Although the city cannot assume responsibility for ash trees on private property, it might be able to assist in debris removal or other aspects of the cleanup, just as it did during the 2007 ice storm, America said.
“Maybe we allow people to dispose of the green waste in an easier way, give them an easier place to take it,” she said. “We’ll just have to get further along and see.”
America said it is important for property owners to understand that they will be responsible for trees in rights of way within their property line. For example, if there is open green space between a property owner’s privacy fence and the street, the property owner would be responsible for taking care of the ash trees that are beyond the fence but within his property line.
“They may have paid no attention to (it), they didn’t plant it, they had no idea it was their responsibility, and if that tree dies, it’s their responsibility,” she said. “So we want to make sure people understand what they are facing.”
What Tulsans will face when it comes to the emerald ash borer may well depend on where they live. More affluent areas, like south Tulsa, are likely to have more ash trees than less affluent areas, America said.
This is because ash trees don’t grow naturally in Tulsa, and they don’t naturally reseed themselves. Most every ash tree in town was purchased and planted by someone, and that someone likely had a specific purpose in mind for the tree, whether it be to provide shade in a backyard, make a median more pleasing to the eye, or to meet landscaping regulations at a mall.
“We’ll see a lot of it in those (south Tulsa) areas,” America said. “I guess the good thing about this is that you won’t tend to see it in lower-income areas as much.
“I mean, there probably won’t be nearly as many of them in north Tulsa because you don’t have as many areas in north Tulsa where there was a lot of intentional landscaping done. We have large areas of more natural trees.”
The unintended benefit of that planting pattern is that the emerald ash borer may end up sparing neighborhoods that would be most challenged to combat it, America said.
“It would have been a really, really big challenge if we had large areas, lower income areas, that had a ton of ash trees,” America said. “Realistically, it is going to be tougher for homeowners there to get rid of them all, and then that becomes a public hazard, and then we have to decide how to handle it.”
One step the city has already taken to address the looming problem is to remove the ash tree from its list of trees for planting on public property. The city must also determine how to dispose of infested ash trees without spreading the beetle.
America said she and her fellow councilors hope to identify funding for the ash tree inventory soon so they can begin developing a plan to address the emerald ash borer by the time next year’s city budget is submitted in the spring.
“Hopefully within our next budget cycle we’ll be able to accommodate whatever that piece (of funding) is,” America said.
What Property Owners Should Know
The first step in deciding what to do about the emerald ash borer is to figure out whether there is an ash tree on your property.
Ash trees in Oklahoma are typically 20 to 40 feet high and have at least two distinguishing characteristics. The first and most significant is the alignment of its leaves. Nearly every tree in Oklahoma has leaves that alternate along the stem, as opposed to being opposite each other.
The ash tree — along with maples and dogwoods — is an exception.
The tree’s other distinguishing characteristic is its bark, which is smooth when the tree is young but becomes deeply grooved as it ages.
If a homeowner wants to save his ash tree, it may not be too early to begin preparing.
“If you’re thinking about treating, probably start treating earlier than later,” he said. “Because, again, it may already be here in the state, we just haven’t found it.”
Grantham said there are at least two methods for protecting an ash tree from the emerald ash borer, both of which require the expertise of an arborist or tree service. The ash tree can be treated with a chemical through its roots, by soaking the ground with the chemical, or by injecting the chemical into the tree, Grantham said.
Did You Know? The emerald ash borer is having an affect on the business of baseball: NPR explains in this report.