Emerald ash borer infestation could cost city up to $6 million

In this Oct. 26, 2011, file photo, forester Jeff Wiegert of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, points out the markings left from emerald ash borer larvae on an ash tree in Saugerties, N.Y., at the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve.

The price to the city of the anticipated emerald ash borer infestation will be in the millions, a Parks and Recreation official told the department’s advisory board Tuesday.

Treatment, removal and disposal of the trees is estimated to cost as much as $6 million, said Mark Hecker, assistant parks and recreation director.

A plan to combat the infestation needs to be established quickly, he said.

“The numbers are really, really scary,” Hecker said. “To be realistic, it’s going to push that kind of number. It can get that high.”

Emerald ash borers, which are known to devastate an entire population of ash trees, have been confirmed as close as U.S. Highway 24 north of Lawrence, Hecker said.

In September, the Kansas and United States departments of agriculture confirmed the presence of the emerald ash borer in Douglas County.

It’s anticipated that the insect will infest all of the city’s ash trees over the next 10 years.

“We’re at the point where the emerald ash borer was discovered in the county, so we need to get more aggressive on our action plan,” Hecker said.

An adult sample of the emerald ash borer, left, is displayed next to an emerald ash borer larva. The larvae of the insect is known for killing ash trees by tunneling and feeding under the bark.

Parks and Recreation officials want to introduce the problem to the City Commission through the city manager’s report sometime in the next month, Hecker said.

Funding to move forward with a plan will be needed in 2016 and especially in 2017, he said.

“That will sound the alarm,” Hecker said. “It will say, ‘This is coming, and we’re going to have to deal with this budgetarily.'”

The Parks and Recreation Department is currently in the process of counting the number of ash trees in Lawrence parks and right-of-ways.

It was previously estimated there were more than 1,000. Hecker said Tuesday that it’s now estimated to be closer to 3,000.

On Tuesday, Hecker presented the advisory board with a map pinpointing the 457 ash trees downtown, between Sixth and 14th streets. It showed several ash trees clumped together in South Park and dozens lining Connecticut Street.

He said the city planted “a ridiculous number” of ash trees 1980s and ’90s, and the variety has not been planted in public areas in the past 20 years.

“Emerald ash borer will take out every last one of these; there’s a 100 percent mortality rate,” Hecker said. “We can’t lose all these trees at once. Having the urban forestry we have, we can’t just ignore it.”

Keeping the trees alive takes perpetual treatment. Treatments would cost the city approximately $150 for every tree each year, Hecker said.

Contracting a company to remove the ash trees and plant another variety would cost about $900 per tree, totaling about $2.7 million over the next four to five years, Hecker said. Having city staff remove and replant trees would cost less initially, he said, but the Parks and Recreation Department doesn’t currently have the staff to do it.

Hecker said the department would soon take estimates for both options to the City Commission.

A horticulture agent at the Kansas State Research and Extension Office in Douglas County told the Journal-World last month that emerald ash borers originated in East Asia and have been in Kansas since 2012. The insects lay their eggs on ash trees, and once the larvae hatch they burrow into the tree’s vascular tissue and begin to feed.