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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison residents alarmed at yellow dots signifying 'death sentence' for ash trees

The dreaded emerald ash borer is wreaking havoc with Madison's ash trees.
The dreaded emerald ash borer is wreaking havoc with Madison's ash trees.
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Christina Newton fears what her neighborhood on the near west side will look like after Madison deals with the dreaded emerald ash borer pest.

"Our whole neighborhood is highly concentrated with ash trees," says Newton, who lives on Rugby Row near Forest Hill Cemetery. "It's going to change the quality of life." Newton and others say the city's plan to remove thousands of ash trees from the terraces -- the strip of grass in-between streets and sidewalks -- is too extreme. Especially when many residents are willing to pay to treat trees in front of their homes.

"If the tree is in great shape and the public is willing to pay, it'd be nice for the city," says Newton. "It's not a good idea to cut down all your trees. Part of the reason these trees were planted in the first place was that people don't want sun shining in their living room all summer long. Utility bills go up."

About 550 ash trees have been removed so far this year, says Charlie Romines, the city's parks operations manager. The city plans on cutting down about 8,500 ash trees in terraces over the next six to nine years. It will attempt to save another 12,500 ash trees in terraces. Trees that are likely to be cut are those that are either unhealthy, beneath power lines or are 10-inches or less in diameter, Romines says.

The plan to remove all trees under power lines in particular troubles Newton, because many of these trees are still healthy.

"Most if not all of these trees could be saved without harm to our environment. For some of the streets in our neighborhood, over 75% of the old trees are ash," she says. "Removing all ash under power lines will have a major and negative impact on our quality of life, which is my first and foremost concern, not to mention the impact on our utility costs and property value."

Susceptible terrace ash trees can be identified on the city park's website. Thousands more will be removed from parks, although Romines does not know how many. The city has created a program allowing adoption of trees in parks.

But there is no similar adoption program being offered for trees on the terrace. Newton and others question this approach, arguing that some residents are ready and able to pay to treat their trees. Treatment costs about $10 to $15 per inch of diameter, meaning a tree with a 10-inch diameter costs about $100 to $150 to treat, Romines says. "It's shown to be over 98% effective," says Newton. "Trees that are treated are likely to do very well."

The trees in front of Newton's house are Y-shaped, considered unhealthy, and will be cut no matter what. But she says she'd love to be able to sponsor other trees in her neighborhood that are healthy.

The city has decided against allowing adoption on the terraces, Romines says, because Madison Gas & Electric is planning to prune trees more aggressively under power lines.

"I know some people are concerned, wondering 'What's my street going to look like without all these trees?'" Romines says. "People have an idea that it will stay the way it is if I adopt my tree, and it won't. How is it going to look if you adopt your tree and MGE comes through and does very aggressive pruning? It's best just to get the next generation of trees going."

When the Dutch elm disease decimated much of the city's elm trees in the early 1960s, the city replaced them with ash trees. But now those are threatened with the emerald ash borer.

Because of this, ash trees will be replaced with one of about 20 different species.

"Coming out of the Dutch elm disease, they planted a bunch of ash trees. It was a great tree for the terrace, until the emerald ash came through," Romines says. "We're diversifying so we don't run into this situation again." Trees that are cut down will be chipped and used for mulch or on playgrounds, Romines says.

Ald. Mike Verveer understands why people are so upset -- especially as the yellow dots begin to appear on trees around the city, signifying they are slated for removal.

"The city forestry's evaluation of ash trees has really alarmed residents as they've seen the yellow death sentence on tree after tree after tree," he says. "It's bad enough to see the yellow dots everywhere. I can only imagine what it will be like when they start aggressively removing the trees."

Verveer says there could be revisions to the city's plan, which was approved in 2012. The plan is scheduled to be reviewed again this fall.

"I would not be surprised if there's an effort to take a good look at that, now that residents are aware of how many trees are slated to be removed," Verveer says. "It might be appropriate for the policy makers to review the policy sooner than this fall."

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