By ERIN BLASKO - Follow me @ErinBlasko
South Bend Tribune Staff Writer
7:41 PM EDT, July 7, 2012
SOUTH BEND -- Aware that a 90-year-old American elm on the South Quad had, for some time, been dying, the University of Notre Dame, on Aug. 2, 1955, had Henry Moore, a South Bend tree surgeon, remove the 80-foot giant.
Later that same week, the city of South Bend hired Moore to remove another, smaller elm, in the 600 block of Ostemo Place, in the Northshore Triangle.
A story in the Aug. 1, 1955, edition of The Tribune, under the headline "Elm disease is found in 2 trees here," reported on the surgeon's work.
"The first proof of the arrival of Dutch elm disease in St. Joseph County was reported today by Henry W. Moore, South Bend tree surgeon," it read. "Samples taken from both trees showed Dutch elm disease when subjected to laboratory analysis."
Spread by the elm bark beetle, the disease, first reported in the United States in 1928, in New England, had, at the time, been spreading slowly east-to-west across the North American continent, laying waste to nearly all of the elms in its path.
Over the next two decades, cities here and across the country would wage a protracted battle against the disease, attacking it first with chemicals, including DDT, and then, when that didn't work, with axes and chain saws.
Six decades later, the South Quad at the university, once shaded by hundreds of tall, stately elms, now features a variety of smaller trees, some just 15 to 20 years old, evidence of the near total devastation caused by the disease.
"There were probably close to 100 elm trees on the South Quad," Pat McCauslin, superintendent of landscape services at the university, recalls. "If you look back at old archive photos from the 1930s and '40s, the trees look like they're anywhere from 6 to 10 inches in diameter."
Now, he said, just a couple remain.
'The real thing'
In a similar fashion, the emerald ash borer is in the process now of destroying the continent's billions of ash trees. First detected in the United States in 2002, and in St. Joseph County in 2006, the invasive beetle has already killed tens of millions of trees in New England and the Midwest.
The female of the species, marked by a brilliant, metallic green body, lays its eggs on the bark of the tree. The larvae then hatch, bore into the trunk, and feed on the plant, eventually killing it.
In May, the city of South Bend cut down more than a dozen infested ash trees along Michigan Street, outside 1st Source Bank, denuding a large portion of the block. Double Tree later removed about four more on the opposite side of the block, along St. Joseph Street.
In an effort to control the spread of the insect, the city plans to remove all 108 ash trees in the public right of way downtown, plus hundreds more in the city's parks, over the next several months, city forester Brent Thompson says. (Insecticides and other chemical treatments that could potentially save the trees have been deemed too expensive, he says.)
In time, most all of the city's ash trees, which make up about 6 percent of the total tree population in the city, will succumb to the beetle, South Bend parks Superintendent Phil St. Clair predicts.
"There'll be very few ash trees that are going to survive this," St. Clair says. "It's the real thing, and it's devastating to the ash tree population."
Mishawaka city forester Rick Springer agrees.
"Ash trees that have been treated, I think they'll be OK and survive this," Springer says. "But any that are not treated will eventually die."
At present, Springer says, Mishawaka does not plan to remove any ash trees in the city, nor does it plan to treat any "because of the costs involved."
A number of insecticides have been shown to protect ash trees from the emerald ash borer. To be effective, however, they all must be applied annually -- or, in the case of one product, once every two years -- over the course of the tree's natural life span.
Springer puts the number of ash trees in the public right of way in Mishawaka at a couple of hundred or so.
Damage to the trees, he says, is widespread.
"I've seen ash borer damage from University Park Mall to Reverewood to over by Logan Street, so throughout the city I've seen signs of damage."
'A lost cause'
Beginning in 1955, it took about 15 years for Dutch elm disease to wipe out the majority of American elms in South Bend. Mayor Frank Bruggner's "Committee for Combating and Preventing the Spread of Dutch Elm Disease," established in 1961, could do little to stop it.
During a four-day period in August, 1961, parks department crews hauled 355 truckloads of elm wood to the city's tree dump and burned it. Soon, crews were cutting down an average of five to six blighted elms a day, prompting parks Superintendent Ralph Newman to remark, "That's just about as fast as they can go."
By 1967, about half of the city's estimated 20,000 elm trees were either dead or dying as a result of the disease, and the other 10,000 or so faced a similar fate.
"The South Bend Park Department quietly and grimly is carrying on a major battle in a lost-cause war," The Tribune reported at the time. "The enemy is the dreaded Dutch elm disease and the phase of the operation is strictly in the stages of mopping up the ravages and inroads made by the aggressor."
A headline in the Sept. 22, 1970, edition of The Tribune offered a more blunt assessment of the situation. "Dutch elm disease battle lost," it read.
The situation was much the same in Mishawaka. Photos from the time show crews removing hundreds of elms from parks and tree lawns, including about a dozen or so in the 1200 block of Lincoln Way East, in front of Mishawaka High School.
Unable to stop the disease, the cities focused instead on replenishing the parts of the canopy lost to it.
In Mishawaka, crews planted dozens of Norway maples along West Jefferson Boulevard and North Main Street, bordering City and Fairview cemeteries. The trees replaced 53 "soldier elms," planted after World War I as a memorial to the soldiers killed in that conflict.
South Bend, meanwhile, embarked on a large-scale tree-planting program. It replaced trees on its own in the public right of way and encouraged property owners to do the same, declaring the week of April 8, 1962, "Plant a Tree Week" in the city.
The city publicized the program with stickers, posters and downtown window displays, and members of the South Bend Garden Club and St. Joseph Valley Nurserymen's Association appeared on local television in support of the cause.
(Tragically, a number of cities replaced dead elms with ash trees, Robin Usborne, communications manager for Michigan State University Extension in Lansing, says. Fortunately, this was not the case in South Bend or Mishawaka.)
Today, only a handful of American elms remain in the area. A handful remain on the South Quad, and, according to Thompson, the South Bend city forester, in the area of Potawatomi Park. Otherwise, the once ubiquitous trees are now few and far between.
In considering how long it might take the emerald ash borer to wipe out the area's ash trees, it's instructive, perhaps, to look north, to the state of Michigan, which has been dealing with the pest now for 10 years, four years longer than St. Joseph County.
"Michigan is considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as generally infested" with the emerald ash borer, Usborne, the communications manager at MSU Extension, says, "which means it's just about everywhere in every county, except in the (Upper Peninsula)."
How bad is it?
"When I drive down I-69 in Michigan from Lansing," Usborne says, "clear down to the border of Michigan (and Indiana), I hardly ever see a live ash tree in any of the rights of ways or medians or anything like that. They're just dead. So it's kind of a sad thing to watch."
But there is some reason for hope, Usborne says. For one, she says, efforts to stop the spread of the beetle appear to be working. Last year, the USDA, which tracks the borer, found no evidence of the pest outside of the 15 states already known to be infested.
Also, she says, insecticides have proved effective in most cases at protecting trees against the beetle.
"A lot of it depends on people, that's the bottom line," she says.
Notre Dame started treating its ash trees last year, McCauslin, the university's superintendent of landscape services, says, and it appears to be working.
"It looks like it could be quite successful," he says.
Regardless, Usborne says, the emerald ash borer serves as an important reminder of the need for diversity in plant populations.
"The big lesson we're learning is do not plant one species of tree ... mix up the plant varieties," she says. "Mix oaks and maples and aspens and whatever you got. Don't put in one monoculture."
Springer, the city forester in Mishawaka, agrees.
"I think (the emerald ash borer) is another great example of why diversity in planting is so important," he says. "I think we've all seen the pictures of beautiful streets lined with elms just decimated, and unfortunately we're seeing the same thing with the ash."
Staff writer Erin Blasko:
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