Preparing for the next urban forest

  • Blog Post by: Mark Andrew
  • June 22, 2014 - 10:59 PM

The legendary Hubert Humphrey once quipped, "Without our lakes, Minneapolis is just another Omaha." 

The same could be said about the urban forest of our city.

After all, it has helped define the nation's greatest urban park system. And it still a big part of the idyllic Midwestern life so many of us love. 

That's why it is disheartening to see another scourge of our urban forest in the form of emerald ash borer disease. In a few years, the emerald ash borer will do to the ash trees what oak wilt did to the oaks and what Dutch Elm has done to eradicate 90% of our city's resplendent elms.  

The greatest urban tree, the American Elm, was a reliable aesthetic. It graced our neighborhoods with over a century of majesty and had an aura of invincibility that reflected the vitality of our young city. The elm was a protective canopy towering above our streets and lawns, to cover us, caress us, cool us. 

It was great while it lasted. 

Millions of Midwesterners were alarmed to learn in the 70's that the European elm bark beetle had migrated here in furniture shipments and, moving West, killed the boulevard fixture with dispassionate efficiency. 

St. Paul was hit by the epidemic first, and lost nearly all of its elms in a few years, diminishing the character of historic neighborhoods, avenues and parks. Grand, forested land was denuded and redressed with whips, saplings and seedlings that lacked the character, symmetry and order of the elms. 

Minneapolis was spared the same fate thanks to the several years it took for the beetle to traverse the Mississippi. Efficient city and park crews managed the epidemic with effective sanitation and replaced the elms with new varieties. 

But it was never the same. We won't experience again the magnificent, imposing stature brought by the noble elm. 

The Twin Cities are struggling to keep up with the loss of our urban forests. Most years we lose more trees than we plant.

Urban development, city maintenence practices that are weakening root systems and radical weather and disease are making it hard to keep pace in replacing these priceless assets at the same rate we are losing them. Aggressive strategies need to be employed. 

This past weekend the Park Board announced it is beginning to mark with a green "X" and remove thousands of ash trees as a way to slow the infestation. That means healthy trees will be marked and removed this year along with diseased ones.

In a few short years, the ash population will be substantially gone and new plantings will have begun laying down roots, and hopefully, we can claim victory for a forest saved. 

Perhaps there is harmony in this rhythm of the Universe, a happening so organic there is no need to mourn the passing of one stalwart symbol of wooded grandeur to a new generation. After all, each new planting is unique and beautiful in its own time.

And maybe this loss is as it should be, when even our grandest, most durable trees are defined by their own impermanence.

With the loss of these populations of trees we are promised new beginnings to watch the next generation take root, and grow into new expressions of a community, healthy and vibrant.

May our city leaders take swift action to plant more trees than we remove and deliver us a larger, healthier urban forest, so that we can drink in our zest for city living without losing the fruits of nature.

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