Lawrence’s horticulture and forestry manager, a 34-year veteran of the Parks and Recreation department, is “kind of passionate about trees,” at the least, she said.
A certified arborist since the 1980s, Crystal Miles has helped grow and maintain the urban forest in Lawrence, which has been part of The Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program for the past 37 years.
Now, Miles and the rest of the horticulture and forestry staff are working to keep that designation by battling an epidemic that will kill all of the city’s ash trees — including the thousands in the public right-of-way — in the next eight to 10 years.
“I call it catastrophic,” Miles said.
This past Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission unanimously — though reluctantly — approved spending $238,540 this year on treating, removing and replacing ash trees infected with emerald ash borers.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture confirmed in October that the insect, a small beetle that’s been spreading from Michigan since 2002, was present in Douglas County.
The female emerald ash borers are expected to emerge in April and lay their eggs onto ash trees through the summer months. The larvae feed under the bark, making S-shaped channels that stop the flow of nutrients.
“So, basically, the tree dies of starvation,” Miles said. “It can’t get water; it can’t get nutrients.”
Kim Bomberger, with the Kansas Forestry Service, was in Lawrence all last week mentoring the city’s Parks and Rec department on its first step in dealing with the insect: creating an inventory of all of the ash trees.
So far, estimates show there are approximately 3,200 publicly owned and managed ash trees in Lawrence, but it’s possible there are thousands more.
In a tree inventory in 2014, Kansas University counted 250 ash trees on its campus.
According to the university's management plan for the emerald ash borer infestation, KU identified 20 "iconic," "majestic" trees it wants to treat immediately. Trees will be removed as KU's design and construction management division spots signs of infestation.
Most of the ash trees on campus will be removed and replaced over the next five years.
An annual budget of $43,000 has been proposed. That amount includes the funds to remove 25 trees per year and plant 50.
Over the next eight years, the city’s total cost of treating, removing and replacing those trees will reach higher than $3 million — if city leaders decide every year on the same financing strategy approved Tuesday.
There were questions from commissioners on whether all or any of the money was really needed right away, and whether it was possible to stretch dollars across a longer period of time: instead of an eight-year combat plan, could the city do a 25-year plan, for instance.
Miles, Bomberger and a handful of other Parks and Rec staff told commissioners if they wanted to save any of the trees before they all die simultaneously, they must start treatment this spring.
“The thing I want to encourage us to think about is if we do nothing, they’re all going to die, and we’re going to have to cut them all down,” Assistant Parks and Rec Director Mark Hecker said. “The appearance of the city is going to be very, very, very, very noticeable. If we don’t deal with them quickly, we’ll have a little bit of a public outcry on this.”
The commission ended up voting in favor of the department’s recommended plan: to hire additional full-time and part-time staff to help with the years-long process of phasing out ash trees and introducing different species.
Wood from the removed trees will be taken to the landfill in Jefferson County, Hecker said. Both Jefferson and Douglas counties are in a quarantine and can't send infected wood to any counties to the west. Some counties to the east have already been infected.
As the infestation becomes more widespread in the next few years, the anticipated costs per year increase up to $500,000. The funding each year will have to be voted on during the city’s budget cycle.
“I’m a little bit concerned putting good money after something we can’t control,” Mayor Mike Amyx said at the meeting. “I think there’s a lot of people, including myself, who take great pride in the canopy we have over the city, though. You’re not known as tree city for not having trees.”
The funds approved Tuesday will also be used for public outreach. Ash trees, a popular tree for landscaping in the 1980s and 90s, dot the yards of Lawrence residents, who will also have to deal with the issue, either by letting the trees die and removing them or attempting to treat them.
The city will be setting up a website about the emerald ash borer infestation to direct people toward information and services for handling the problem.
The emerald ash borer isn’t visible, but early symptoms are trees with dead branches near the top or leafy shoots growing from the trunk.
Hecker said the insect has been found in the county and “it’s probably progressed further than we actually know.”
Some trees won’t be worth saving, Bomberger said, because of their age or their condition before the beetle even strikes.
“I was out in your town today, and I’m seeing a lot of stressed ash trees,” Bomberger said. “Of the 10 we got inputted today, probably 80 percent were stressed.”
On Friday morning, Miles and Mike Perryman, Lawrence’s lead forester, inventoried some trees in Prairie Park. Five other crews spread across the city last week, counting the ash trees in the hope the department could finish this summer. City commissioners tasked staff with bringing them a more accurate tree-count and overall cost estimate by Labor Day.
Near an ash tree in the southwest corner of the Prairie Park parking lot, Perryman took out a mobile device to input the tree’s condition and other characteristics, including its diameter.
“We’re adding it to this unit, and we’ll bring it back to the office and download it into the inventory system,” Perryman said.
This tree, overall, was “good,” Miles said. It was well watered, and it’s a desirable size at 11 inches in diameter. Trees between 8 and 20 inches are considered candidates for treatment. They’ll undergo bi-annual injections until they’re eventually removed and replaced.
“These trees, environmentally, are making the biggest carbon footprint,” Miles said, while wrapping a tape measure around it. “They’ve got the most foliage on them; they’re giving you CO2 exchanges the best. They’re actively growing; they have a lot of life left in them.”
"It's a lot of money," Miles said of the cost to save the trees. "But golly, it's worth it to keep the environmental benefits going."