Uprooting and rooting: Restoring Evanston’s urban forest

Fall color near the Grosse Point Lighthouse. Image by  Tom Gill .

Fall color near the Grosse Point Lighthouse. Image by Tom Gill.

The battle to revive Evanston’s tree population continues. As plagues attack Evanston’s trees, city officials find themselves enmeshed in an effort to revitalize the urban forests that line Evanston’s streets and fill its public parks.

An ongoing depletion of trees has plagued Evanston for more than a decade now. Since then, workers have been hacking away at infected or dead trees while city officials struggle to stay afloat with planting as many trees as it has been taking down.

“It’s not an ideal situation at all,” said assistant director of Public Works/Forestry Paul D’Agostino. “We have always been replanting trees, but the amount of trees we started losing jumped way up.”

Each year, Evanston cuts down 700 trees—but only budgets enough to plant 500 new trees. Thus, a gap has formed. The new trees are also mostly 2-inch diameter trees, as larger ones are significantly more expensive. And with neighboring communities facing similar threats, prices of mature trees have spiked.

The result is an obvious reduction in overall tree cover in Evanston.

In public property, there are about 34,000 trees in the city, with 830 of them only stumps, according to D’Agostino. As thousands of trees have been chopped down and replaced in the past decade, the total inventory of trees present in Evanston public property has decreased since the beginning of the project by about 500. It is what D’Agostino said he considers for now “not losing much ground,” but still “getting behind.”

The average cost to get a tree in the ground is about $375, according to D’Agostino. He noted that prior to the sudden tree loss, usually a tree could be replaced in less than a year. Now, it takes two years for that site to emerge at the top of the city’s planting list.

“My limit is that I don’t have enough money to buy more trees,” D’Agostino said.

The trouble intensified in the summer of 2006, when the Emerald Ash Borer beetle was confirmed present in a portion of Evanston’s ash tree population. Although the infected areas were quarantined, in two years the infestation had spread all over Evanston, leading the city to increase its planting budget to keep up with the losses.

Since then, the public ash tree population has reduced from about 4,200 to 1,000. With no known defense against the Emerald Ash Borer existing, the ash population will likely die out.

Many of these ash trees are large in diameter, like most of the other trees being cut down. Even if the city could keep up with replanting where ashes have been cut down, there still will be a significant period of sparse tree coverage in many neighborhoods.

Ash trees also had made up 13 percent of the tree population before the infestation. Many other Evanston neighborhoods were also planted with only one kind of tree, leaving those streets vulnerable to a similar menace.

The city has since changed its policy, stating that it will ensure each species doesn’t make up more than 10 percent of the total tree population.

A similar plague occurred around 2004, when the Dutch Elm Disease fungus infected elm trees in Evanston. While the city has since vaccinated against the threat with a 97% effectiveness rate, there are still many mature elm trees that will not survive.

D’Agostino said the city is looking at breeds that can tolerate urban conditions well, including air pollution and salt spray. Some successful breeds so far include different types of oaks, the Kentucky coffee tree and hybrid elms.

A year ago, the city initiated fundraising for this cause, using methods such as crowd funding, donor letters and fundraising at events. The endeavor, called the I Heart Evanston Trees campaign, raised short of $25,000 and secured an extra 100 trees for the city. D’Agostino said due to the program’s success, it was restarted for 2014-2015 with a goal of $25,000 by next spring.

“There’s still a lot more that can be done,” D’Agostino said during a meeting with SEA. “Last year, we were closer to keeping up with removals. We will catch up when we remove most of the ash trees.”

Posted on November 1, 2014 and filed under Evanston Community.