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Ash trees' loss would be costly all around

Shady Lane is well named. The Arboretum Woods runs along one side of the winding street, and a line of mature ash trees follows the curves on the other side.

Terry Conners has one of the ashes in front of his house. He figures that his tree and the others were planted soon after the street was laid out in 1927.

On Tuesday, the Urban County Council will be presented with a survey by volunteers who counted nearly 7,500 ash trees lining Lexington streets.

The odds look pretty good that, in five years or so, most could be dead or dying.

And that's just the trees between streets and sidewalks. There are an estimated 500,000 ash trees in parks, private yards, parking lots, greenways and woods in Fayette County. Some are blue ashes that have been standing their ground since before there was a Lexington.

The estimate for the rest of Kentucky: more than 200 million ashes.

They are being attacked by the emerald ash borer, an insect that tunnels beneath the bark of ash trees and kills them.

The borer was found seven years ago near Detroit, and has wiped out countless millions of ashes on its way to Kentucky, where it appeared in May.

The cost to Lexington and Kentucky of losing its ash trees could be astronomical. Peter Barber with the state Division of Forestry has done rough calculations that each tree provides $54 each year in lower home utility bills, the carbon dioxide and other air pollutants it captures and the rain runoff it slows.

Individual homeowners are likely to notice costs that are easier to calculate, such as treating a tree versus having to replace it.

Conners, the Shady Lane resident, is prepared to spend about $400 every couple of years to have his tree treated with a chemical that will protect it from the borer.

His neighbor, Mike Flynn, has two large ashes, one very close to Conners' driveway. Flynn hasn't decided whether to treat them or pay to have dead trees removed.

"I am a bit ambivalent," he said. "It's between aesthetics or economics."

Flynn mentioned that part of his deliberations will involve getting financial help from the city in removing trees, and the cost of treating them.

But, at current spending levels, there won't be nearly enough money to spread around in the city's cost-share program for removing street trees.

In the fiscal year that started in July, that fund had $10,000. Tim Queary, the city's urban forester, sent letters to a handful of people who were on a waiting list, and the money was gone. He estimated that the 50-50 share program helped fewer than a dozen people.

The cost of treatment is all over the place. Conners says the $400 estimate he has may be on the high side, even for a large tree such as his. But it's from an arborist he knows and trusts.

A second bid from someone he doesn't know came in much lower, he said. That person was proposing to use a chemical that could be less effective. (Conners knows more than the average homeowner about this sort of thing; he's a wood extension specialist at the University of Kentucky.)

Many factors can go into whether to treat a tree, and even when to start treatment, said Lee Townsend, a UK extension entomologist.

Ash borers fly around in May, but homeowners aren't likely to see them because they start out high in trees. Most people won't notice until a tree starts to lose leaves and limbs. The good news, Townsend said, is that treating a tree can be effective even if it already has up to 50 percent dieback from the insect damage.

For a relatively small tree, a homeowner can buy an insecticide at Lowe's, Home Depot or Wal-Mart. Look for something that is for 12-month tree and insect control.

Trees larger than 15 inches in diameter will need to be treated by a professional, he said. Expect to pay about $10 per inch of the tree's diameter.

Although the do-it-yourself method for small trees is cheaper, Townsend said, that's not necessarily what you should do.

"For relatively small trees, if you're going to be on the property for a long time, you may be better off to go ahead and replace the trees or just let nature take its course," he said.

For a large tree, he said, the homeowner should consider the much larger expense of removing the tree, and the chance that it could fall and damage people or property. You might decide that treatment is the best choice in those cases, Townsend said.

Another thing to take into consideration: A house with large trees is more valuable, but a tree that needs regular treatments — or a tree that is likely to die — could be a drawback in a house that's on the market.

Some treatments have to be repeated annually. Some last for two or even three years. Chemical treatments have become more effective, and there is long-term hope for a biological control — perhaps a bug that eats the bug.

But Townsend said he doesn't expect any major breakthrough in the next five years.

Conners also is concerned about what will happen when ash trees along streets die. A city ordinance requires that the homeowner replant those trees. But Queary said that his office, which has three people, is too busy dealing with trees that are in danger of falling on people to handle missing trees.

The city also is going to have its hands full dealing with ash trees on public property, Queary said.

There is no way that most can be treated, which means a lot of removal costs. Green ash trees along Vine Street have been treated this year and probably will be treated again next year, he said. After the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, they might be replaced.

Karen Angelucci, the chairwoman of the Lexington Tree Board, organized volunteers to count street trees. She will make a pitch Tuesday for the city to step up its tree program to deal with the coming ash die-off.

She is worried about dead trees not being replaced, about homeowners being scammed by con artists offering weak chemical treatments or hap-hazard tree removal.

Angelucci said she has heard in recent months from people who don't want to use chemicals on their trees, from people who want to do anything to save their trees, and from those who wouldn't give it a second thought if all the ashes die.

The tree board's role is to advise city officials on tree issues, but Angelucci said she doesn't know what kind of response she will get Tuesday.

"I'm not going to ask them for money, I'm not going to ask them to come up with a solution, I'm just going to let them know what is going on," she said.

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