Grand Rapids tree lovers battle emerald ash borer, but some question if never-ending fight is worth it

By Jim Harger, The Grand Rapids Press 


The emerald ash borer, an Asian pest, arrived in West Michigan in 2002.

GRAND RAPIDS — Front-line battles against the Emerald Ash Borer are being waged in the city’s streets and parks.

Tree lovers say they can win the war with new insecticides developed
since the Asian import arrived in 2002 and wiped out most ash trees in
Southeast Michigan and much of central Michigan.

“We have the benefit of research that Southeast Michigan has done,”
says Dotti Clune, chairman of the city’s Urban Forestry Committee.

Clune and a city task force have asked the city to suspend a program
that has cut down and replaced nearly 2,000 ash trees over the past two

But Darrell VanderKooi, the city’s assistant public works director,
questions whether the city should spend money on insecticides instead
of replacing infested ash trees with other healthy varieties.

“I just don’t think it’s a wise thing to do,” he said. “When you
treat, it’s something you have to do forever. When you’re talking about
sustainability, it’s just too expensive.”

The debate came to a head last week, when the Urban Forestry
Committee met and voted to accept the task force report without
committing to its recommendations.

Meanwhile, City Manager Greg Sundstrom has imposed a 30-day
moratorium on ash tree removal. “This will give us time to think this
through,” he said.

The heart of the debate centers around the cost and effectiveness of
new insecticides that have emerged in recent years from entymologists
and forestry experts at Michigan State University.

When the emerald ash borer arrived in 2007, Grand Rapids officials
decided to cut down and replace the 7,000 ash trees lining city streets
instead of trying to save them.
ash borer treatment

Michigan Tree Services certified arborist Nick Clement attaches an
intravenous device to inject an ash tree in Riverside Park with a
chemical treatment to fight the emerald ash borer.

Looking at Dutch Elm Disease, which wiped out most of the nation’s elm
trees in a previous generation, city officials saw it as a losing

For neighbors who wanted to try costly treatments of the city-owned
trees in front of their homes, the city agreed to no-cut requests.

Today, tree preservationists say a small ash tree can be saved for
about $10 by property owners, while a larger tree can be treated for
about $100 by a professional.

Besides trying to get city officials to change their cut-and-replace
program, the tree lovers are trying to spread the word to private tree

The Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is sponsoring three NeighborWoods
events this month to acquaint city residents with treatment options.

“We’re sort of right on the threshold,” said Steve Faber, director
of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. “The research has caught up now, and
we actually have a chance to save a significant number of them.

“There’s a definite sense of urgency. Grand Rapids is the front line right now.”

Members of the Urban Forestry Committee members agree the city needs a battle plan, but they differ on strategy.

Parks and Recreation Director Jay Steffen says he’s a recent convert
to the “treat-and-preserve” camp, thanks to the reduced costs and
increased effectiveness of treatment.

“I think if there’s an opportunity to save those trees, we’ve got to
be exploring those options,” said Steffen, a member of the Urban
Forestry Committee.

Steffen’s counterparts in the Public Works Department say the Task
Force’s cost-benefit analysis needs to be examined more closely. “I
don’t think the analysis is complete,” said Public Works Director
Patrick Bush.

They question whether the task force considered the value of the
trees that will replace the infested ash trees and the risks associated
with using insecticides on a widespread basis.

Experts say Grand Rapids is West Michigan’s ground zero in the battle because places such as Kentwood
and Cascade Township have been hit too hard to mount a defense.
Meanwhile, communities such as Holland and Muskegon have not seen much
infestation yet.

“For Grand Rapids, I think it is a very critical point in time,”
said Vic Foerster, a consulting arborist for West Michigan Tree
Services. “If we wait even another two or three years, it could be too

Foerster said his company recently completed an inventory of the 400
ash trees in Riverside Park, a 250-acre park on the city’s Northeast
Side. Some trees are worth saving, while others are not, he said.

Foerster’s company is developing ash tree management plans for large
property holders including Grand Valley State University in Allendale
Township and Kuyper College in Grand Rapids Township.

Foerster said the new chemicals give property owners an option, depending on the size and location of ash trees.

“If you have an ash tree in the front yard and it was the only tree
in your front yard and it would take 20 years to replace it, given your
situation, I would probably want to treat it,” he said.

“If it’s one of ten ash trees in the far back corner of your back
yard and you have a wooded lot, you’re not likely to treat all your

Brian Hiemstra, an arborist representative for Bartlett Tree
Experts, said most homeowners are choosing to treat infested trees,
even if it means a long-term commitment.

“You try to let people know it’s not a once and done thing,” he said. “There’s an investment involved.”

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is sponsoring three NeighborWoods
events for city residents who want to treat their ash trees for the
emerald ash borer:

Oct. 17: 9 a.m. to noon at Riverside Park, 2001 Monroe Ave. NE

Oct. 24: 9 a.m. to noon at Cherry Park, 725 Cherry St. SE

Oct. 31: 4 to 5 p.m. at Oakhill Cemetery, 647 Hall St. SE

More details: friendsofgrparks.org/events/

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