Ash borer may eat money with trees

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2009 - 4:33 PM

Property owners fear losing shady yards, but while home values may hold up, battling the bug may be costly.

Nancy Dilts can list a lot to like about her family's Hampden Park neighborhood in St. Paul: the convenience, the walkability, the park across the street, the solid homes, the tree-lined streets. The neighbors were mostly great, too, until the emerald ash borer moved in.

"It has devastating implications for our neighborhood," said Dilts, who lives only two blocks from Minnesota's first confirmed infestation by the insect that has wiped out millions of ash trees elsewhere in the Midwest and eastern United States. "We all knew it was a matter of time before EAB came to Minnesota, but we didn't think it would impact our neighborhood so dramatically. It's really going to change what it's like to live here."

Researchers are only beginning to assess the potential impact the emerald ash borer will have. But with 300,000 ash trees in St. Paul and Minneapolis and 900 million statewide, Minnesotans may be facing a considerable environmental, aesthetic and economic challenge.

Many fear a return of the suddenly shade-free block, a common feature of the Dutch elm disease days that, in older neighborhoods, had the same effect as turning up the lights in a bar.

The bug could also diminish property owners' and all taxpayers' pocketbooks. Removing and replacing only the 38,000 ash along boulevards in Minneapolis could cost $27 million, said Ralph Sievert, director of forestry for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. That's based on a rough estimate of $725 to remove an ash, grind out the stump and plant a replacement tree.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has asked for $850,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help with the initial stages of the ash borer fight in Minnesota. But that could be a drop in the bucket. The state of Michigan has spent $55 million in federal money on ash borer programs and trees since the insect made its first U.S. appearance there in 2002. The USDA estimates the potential impact of the ash borer on the nation's cities and towns to be more than $20 billion in the coming years.

Echoing elms

Minnesota spent nearly $140 million on elm removal and replacement from 1974 through 1982, with some of that money reimbursing private property owners for tree removal. St. Paul, for one, continues to spend $1 million a year on elm removal and replacement, but these days both Twin Cities require private property owners to pay for a city-ordered tree removal themselves. There's no budget specifically to deal with emerald ash borer.

"Unfortunately we live in different budget times," said Geir Friisoe, director of plant protection for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty authorized $2 million for the ash borer fight in the Legacy sales tax bill that Pawlenty signed Friday. The approval came despite protests that the proceeds of the tax, based on a constitutional amendment approved by voters last fall to enhance funding for the outdoors, parks and the arts, shouldn't be used for this problem.

Ash are plentiful, particularly in the metro area, precisely because they were seen as hardy replacements for the formerly hardy street-side elms. Years ago builders in the Twin Cities were required by ordinance to plant elms on the boulevards, so that at one time 90 percent of the boulevard trees in Minneapolis were elm. Today only 19 percent of the trees that replaced them are ash, Sievert said. Both cities stopped planting ash about five years ago in anticipation of the ash borer.

Home values should survive

Even so, while a master street planting plan for both cities has for years called for different kinds of large trees, it has continued to favor planting the same species in rows sometimes several blocks long, then changing to another species, because people liked that sort of uniform look, said T.K. Walling, a retired St. Paul city arborist. One result is a double row of ash on a wide boulevard along St. Paul's Pelham Avenue, which inspectors were checking for infestation last week.

"They make a lot of shade," said Bob Munson, who lost the elms in front of his house shortly after buying it in 1974 and recalled several hot summers before the replacement ash grew up. "They would be missed."

Real estate sellers and analysts generally said that the loss of shade trees doesn't have a significant impact on residential home values. University of St. Thomas real estate Prof. George Karvel noted that property values remained strong in many neighborhoods devastated by Dutch elm disease.

But Dilts, who can look out at an ash in her front yard and a row of them lining Hampden Avenue, said the thought of losing them is still painful. Last week she took pictures to remember them.

"It's almost like grieving," she said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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