Lexington needs to get serious about saving trees

Ash trees on Lexington's McGarry Drive were dying last year after being infested with emerald ash borers. The blight has spread to 17 states.
Ash trees on Lexington's McGarry Drive were dying last year after being infested with emerald ash borers. The blight has spread to 17 states. Herald-Leader

It has been really sad watching the ash trees in our neighborhood die.

The emerald ash borer insects have arrived in Lexington, and they have quietly begun killing our ash trees. They are dying all over town, right now. A hardy species of tree that has existed here for millions of years is being wiped out right before our eyes.

Scientists believe that the EAB arrived in a cargo shipment from Asia around 2002. It was first discovered in southeast Michigan. It has been blamed for the loss of more than 15 million trees in the Detroit area and has continued to spread.

According to Lexington arborist Dave Leonard, EAB has been found in 17 states from Connecticut to Wisconsin, even as far south as Tennessee. It arrived here last summer.

The economic impacts of the EAB invasion are very real. Lexington real estate agents say that a fully mature healthy hardwood tree adds $5,000 to $10,000 to a home's property value. Many Bluegrass homeowners must now pay thousands of dollars to remove their dead and dying ash trees, and the costs to taxpayers to remove dead trees from public rights-of-way and city parks are astronomical.

A study by the International Society of Arboriculture has placed the costs of the EAB infestation to Ohio as high as $7.6 billion.

Ash is a hardwood species. In addition to adding beauty and cooling shade to our community, providing habitat for songbirds and helping clean the air from dust and pollution, ash wood is valued for making tool handles, furniture, flooring and musical instruments.

Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the Louisville Slugger, has expressed "serious concern" that EAB has been discovered 100 miles away from the area in New York and Pennsylvania where they harvest ash trees to make their baseball bats.

And it's not just ash trees. Americans should be alarmed about the overall decline in the health of our trees. I have already witnessed the loss of the elm tree to Dutch elm disease. Elms were a magnificent tree species that once provided shade along city streets throughout the eastern part of the United States.

Earlier in this century, America lost the chestnut tree to chestnut blight, a tragedy which has been called "the greatest environmental disaster in human history." When Daniel Boone arrived, one out of every four trees in Kentucky's forests was a chestnut. Chestnuts provided a reliable and abundant source of food for pioneers and their hogs, which roamed the forests and fattened themselves on the mast. Chestnut wood was naturally rot-resistant, and the trees were enormous.

Other important tree species in Kentucky are currently threatened. The Asian long-horned beetle has caused New York to remove 18,000 trees. Worcester, Mass. — a city the size of Lexington — has removed 28,000 trees.

The hemlock wooly adelgid insect has decimated the ecologically-important hemlock species throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This pest has now arrived in southeastern Kentucky. It is only a matter of time before it shows up in Central Kentucky.

What can be done?

First, it is important for Kentuckians to educate themselves about their trees. Find out what an ash tree looks like. Do you have one in your yard? Are the upper branches bare? If so, chances are good that it has an EAB infestation. Your ash tree can be treated, but it must be done now.

Second, we have to demand that the Lexington government start taking tree problems seriously. Other cities, such as Amsterdam, have engaged in large-scale programs to save their city's trees, but we lack a strong voice for the trees in our local government.

Third, go plant a tree.

Finally, we have to recognize that our desire for inexpensive goods has many hidden costs. When we shop at big-box stores that sell imported goods, we are not only hurting our locally owned businesses, we are also hurting the planet. We might save a little at the checkout counter, but the overall costs to our quality of life are far greater.

Who wants to live in a Lexington without trees?

At issue: April 29 Associated Press story, "Ash borer traps being set in Western Kentucky"