Urban Forester Criticizes Park Dutch Elm Disease Program

notched elm tree left standing with full canopy

My name is Dan Myklebust. I live [on]Clinton Avenue South. I am here to speak about Dutch elm disease (DED). My observations of the planning and performance of the MPRB and Forestry department and discussions with commissioners and staff need to be brought to the public’s attention.

For qualification’s sake, I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Urban Forestry from the U of MN. I spent a decade in the industry, five years managing a diseased tree program.

Last year, the board budgeted a million plus dollars to this year’s program. All you did was buy status quo with poorer results. More inspectors marking more elms early on is actually a negative to the current sanitation program. This amounts to a wasted effort.

The fact sheet on DED speaks specifically about the critical need to control high-risk elms. These are imminent threats to produce the vector beetles and fungal inoculum and should be removed immediately. This program doesn’t even identify high-risk elms. So, when all of the elms are marked right away with no differentiation, the time frame to remove the high-risk elms goes up significantly. Twenty days should be the maximum the high-risk elms are left standing. Down the street from me two large elms stood nearly defoliated for sixty days and were finally removed in early August. Based on what you can read, these elms alone may have produced multiple generations upwards of four hundred thousand beetles.

Imagine this all over the city. Explosions of infestations going off all summer. What’s to be done? First of all, identify high-risk elms immediately in spring. Do not worry about low-risk elms on the first inspection. They can be removed later in the summer. Two, remove high-risk elms immediately. Use all resources, including contractors. Forestry bemoans its lack of budget and states that contractors are too busy. A weak answer. Thirdly, replace the current extraordinarily inefficient removal system employed by MPRB tree crews. It actually took three separate crew mobilizations to remove the elm across the street from me.

There can only be two possible conclusions. One, the Forestry department and executive management actively duped the members of the board and the public. They are telling the commissioners only enough to satisfy the unenlightened questions. The second possibility is the entire board is aware of this strategy and is also culpable. In either case, the constituency should not accept a plea of ignorance by the board.

Thank you.

 

The following is a chronological presentation of excerpts from some pertinent communications regarding Dutch elm disease (DED) this year. I have done some slight editing for brevity and clarity. Also, I removed some personal references. The entire board should consider themselves as recipients. I am emailing each commissioner the picture of the elm to which I refer to below.

7/28/05. (pasted into an email from a commissioner)

On a unanimous vote, the Park Board approved an additional $1M (for a total of $9.421M) for the Forestry Department. The following list tells you how that money will be used:

  • By May 15, scouts will be identifying and marking trees for removal
  • Forestry crews will be put on a 6 day a week, 10 hours a day work schedules to complete planting approximately 2500 trees by Memorial Day (over 20 species will be planted so that our urban forest will not be decimated by a future threat such as the Emerald Ash Borer heading our way);
  • Forestry crews will remain on the 6-10 hour day schedule until the diseased tree removal needs have been met (emergency removals for safety reasons will still occur);
  • A whole tree grinder has been rented (at a cheaper rate than last year) for as long as necessary;
  • MPRB is working with the City to locate another site closer in which will shorten transport of tree debris (currently Fort Snelling is the only disposal site); MPRB will work with the Tree Commission to obtain additional funding from all possible sources to enhance diseased tree removals.
  • Any extra money will be used to hire seasonal arborists, rent equipment or contract with private sources for tree removal;
  • MPRB will match up to $100,000 in outside funding with supplemental funding for education and awareness programs with the Tree Commission in the lead role and MPRB as advisory and support which will allow forestry to focus solely on removal.
  • A major change in the private tree removal program is to create awareness of the need to quickly remove diseased trees in part through the education and awareness programs developed by the Tree Commission.
  • The list of private contractors will be expanded to help citizens get sick trees down quicker.
  • In mid-May, seasonal employees will be hired to provide support to residents in getting private tree removal done in a timely manner. MPRB finance staff is working with the City on special assessments for private tree removal by contractors not on the bid list.
  • The last strategy is be prepared for the unexpected. The balance of the $1M in supplemental funding will be held in contingency for other operational changes or to supplement funding in the event of losses in excess of 10,000 trees. If removal costs do not exceed $850,000, the remaining $150,000 will be used for stump removal in 2005.

Those of you who have elms that you want to try to save, check the MPRB’s website, minneapolisparks.org for information about having them injected.

7/13/05. My disappointment is building with great fury too. As you know I see a great deal of the city via many modes of transportation. Honestly, I have seen only one diseased public tree worked on – on this side of town. And I noticed the one tree, barely topped, near Lake Hiawatha and the tennis courts. The only other tree I saw removed was near Calhoun. I happened by as they were finishing the removal.

Now I’m not saying they aren’t working. But the tree near Hiawatha was one of the first I saw marked and is probably “breeding” at this moment. There are too many trees for these crews to handle, period. Not to have a back up plan is malfeasance. If they are content to let these trees die as an eventuality then that is malfeasance. Director Schmidt stated this as fact in one of your meetings and apparently the board accepts this logic as fact.

Most of the trees in my immediate area have been marked since early June. The high-risk trees are “breeding” now. The state ordinance adopted by most cites states these trees must be removed in 20 days. Most city contracts reflect this period too and penalize the contractor for late performance of a work order. Also, I have noted trees marked which are not displaying the recognized and accepted field symptoms of DED. One notable tree is along the boulevard, just north of the Minnehaha Train Depot. It is and has been is a slight decline for a number of years. Probably root damage from the construction projects. This is an example of overzealous marching orders.

My suggestion to you and the board, if they entertain any hope of continuing in office, is to focus the management on development of sustainable practices with the flexibility for worse case scenarios. Of all departments in MPRB, Forestry should be the most progressive. Why aren’t they?

7/22/05.(part of an email from me to a reporter at the Star Tribune) As you may recall, I have a degree in Urban Forestry from the U of M and spent ten years in the field before leaving for the mortgage industry (FYI, I am now a partner of my firm).

Once again, the MPRB is dropping the ball with their performance and management. The forestry department is completely unprepared to do anything to slow down the spread of DED. There are trees on my street that were marked in early June. There are trees marked on the south side that were marked in late May. None of these trees have been removed, let alone worked on, even though many of these trees are “high risk” for breeding the fungus and beetles. Many are now mostly or completely defoliated. When I worked for Minnetonka, our contractors were given 20 calendar days to remove a tree. This was because our ordinance was taken from the original state statute and our citizens were also expected to remove their trees in the same period.

Also, the MPRB inspectors are now so aggressive in marking elms that I am seeing trees with questionable field signs, if not incorrectly diagnosed symptoms. When I questioned the inspector who marked the elm (questionable symptoms – the tree has had slight dieback over the last few years and recurring black spot leaf infection) in a rainstorm, she stated that contractors would take away her livelihood. She told me it was coming down and that was that. Oh, really? She just happens to work on the tree crews after she marks the trees for removal. Hmmm. This seems to me to be a conflict of interest.

I am dumbfounded at the lack of preparation and performance of the forestry department and the MPRB. Apparently, they made no contingency plan to hire contractors to support removals of public trees. Honestly, I think this borders on malfeasance. If they knowingly rejected this option with the knowledge of the resulting devastation from a negligible removal effort, then that is misconduct. These people foresaw this emergency and did nothing about it. No contingency plan. Nothing.

There are many studies, which prove the economic benefits of an aggressive removal program. This is a complete joke and they should all be called out for it. This is what happens when the board is isolated from the rest of the city government. There is no safety net. You have morons running things into the ground and building infrastructure while ignoring the core resources.

7/26/05. I’m afraid it’s been two weeks and I haven’t heard from the forestry department. Was he supposed to call me? Did you ask him to call me? I guess I thought someone was going to.

Oh, I saw a tree crew today. Apparently, they think a six-man crew is cost effective. One guy in the bucket and five standing around waiting for a limb to drop. Funny. In most tree businesses (like the one I dragged brush for) you’d get two crews from six people.

Now do you get it? Efficiency = cost savings = more trees removed within the proper timeframe. I’m really not trying to be a smart mouth. You all gave the forestry department more money and didn’t ask for anything in return. All it amounts to is just more volume of the same thing as last year. No better, just more. You should ask for more than that. It is what the constituency expects.

8/1/05. I received a call from Ralph Sievert this afternoon. We had a decent, unfortunately unproductive, discussion a regarding Forestry and DED management.

He had no explanation (sidestep) why it took so long to get back to me. I don’t get that one. Seems like there’s no real sense of urgency at MPRB unless there’s something to build. Is MPRB buying into the Minneapolis One-call system this year?

Apparently, there is a provision to use contractors for public trees. I say apparently because apparently Ralph doesn’t see a need for them. I can’t draw a conclusion due to the fact the city forester could not (or would not) give me a reckoning (even a guess) as to trees remaining, public or private. I’m dumbfounded by that statement and can’t begin to count the questions begged.

I’ve mentioned before my concern regarding removal timeframes. The “high risk” trees must be removed ASAP. Twenty (20) days is the accepted timeframe. That is why contracts are written with this provision for all trees. Apparently, the MPRB has no system to track if a tree is “high risk” or “low risk”. “High risk” (especially in the spring and early summer) simply means a tree is sufficiently wilted/defoliated (usually at least one-third defoliation) so as to be at imminent risk of producing the fungal inoculum and the vector beetles. Root graft spread will begin immediately after the root systems become active in the spring. The MPRB marked “high risk” (by my accounting) trees in late May and early June and are just now topping the trees. Ralph said the rest of the trees should come down within a week. So, we are talking at least sixty (60) days to remove a disease elm that was probably “breeding” at the end of June.

Ralph stated contractors are only employed to take down difficult trees on public property and are now too busy with private trees. More questions begged. Why was none of this foreseen and an extraordinary effort (monetarily and manpower-wise) planned for over the winter? Is an honest effort to stem the tide of DED really being made by MPRB?

Ralph actually claimed this is an aggressive effort. Well, it isn’t. You aren’t applying the resources properly and this claim is merely lip service. I knew that before I heard his answer. Don’t you dare let the board speak about the heroic efforts of Forestry. They are only interested in mollifying the public until the elm population drops to negligible levels. The bureaucrats can easily deflect and outlast any elected official. If the board accepts this logic, at least admit it. Right now, it appears the board is being told only what it wants to hear. A full accounting needs to be made to the public.

I haven’t contacted any other board members, but I nearly did after your last meeting. (a commissioner) asked the question about remaining trees, but she didn’t know the correct answer to the question. In fact, here are a few questions. Why, if the removal money is looking good at this point, aren’t we employing contractors to help with the backlog? Or, are we so far behind that the money isn’t being spent on removals for the lack of removals?

8/6/05. I happened to look out a few minutes ago and saw this out front of my house. The forestry crew had gone to all the marked trees in the neighborhood and notched out the diseased elms. As you can see by the photos, this tree still has most of its crown, with all the leaves and no crew in sight. The wind today (or any) combined with the “sail” effect of a crown and the loss of most of the tree’s holding power could create catastrophic failure. It only takes seconds.

What the hell are they thinking? It never ends!

Do you see where I’m coming from now? (Sent to a commissioner, forestry management, district manager)

8/9/05. (from a commissioner) Good grief!! Yes, I see, I see. I sure hope you heard from Ralph & Paul.

8/10/05. Not a peep.

Don’t worry about it unless you wish so, of course. I think I need to bring this to another level. Keep you ears and eyes open.

8/10/05. (from the same commissioner) Please tell me that it’s been cut down…

8/11/05. Oh, yeah. You would have heard plenty more out of me later that same day if it wasn’t removed. Here’s the story in summary.

I was downstairs doing laundry when I heard the chainsaw out front. I didn’t think anything of it at first, but after a half an hour to an hour’s time elapsed, I began to wonder why I didn’t hear or feel the thump of the tree hitting the street. So, I wandered up to see what I missed. That’s when I saw the notch and the wedge laying in the street, looked around and thought, “What the…” I went back downstairs, loaded my digital with batteries, went back out and took the pictures. Still no crew in sight. Then as I was walking back in, a panel van parked down at the end of the street. Two guys started eating lunch. I walked down and asked them why all the trees were notched and not removed immediately. They said the crew leader does this to save time (that doesn’t compute, but they must believe it). They also informed me that what limbs are “precut” off the trees are only for the sake of not hitting anything when they flop it, not to remove any possible “breeding” limbs. This is more proof of the lack of aggressive response to DED. Then a pickup pulled up to my house. I excused myself and walked back to my yard. The crew leader was putting on his chaps as I got back. I asked him if he was aware of the possible ramifications of removing half of the tree’s holding wood and leaving it stand for any period of time on a windy day. He looked at me sideways and said “Yeah”. I assured him I knew what I was speaking about and asked him again. He affirmed again. I then left them to the task.

Still think this isn’t a big deal? When I worked for the City of Cincinnati as a contract Urban Forester, a sidewalk contractor told me a story. One day, he was replacing a broken, heaved sidewalk in front of a residence (same as our city). The cause of it was a large tree planted in the boulevard (probably too narrow a strip for that size tree). One of its roots did the damage and had to be cut to properly replace the sidewalk. So, he cut the root (singular) without an inspection by Forestry. Not more than a few minutes after he cut the root, the tree tipped over slowly and came to rest on the house. It knocked out the power and I think he said he replaced a bunch of food in the frig and freezer too. Needless to say, that is why I was talking to him that day. I would go out on call and inspect any root or roots that a contractor wanted to cut. If we agreed and concluded, in doing so the tree would then be a hazard, we would immediately condemn and remove it before any cutting of the roots. It can be that dangerous to mess with the biophysics a large tree.

I also have seen numerous, otherwise perfectly healthy trees literally twist apart from vertical failures (cracks from stresses such as high winds).

Honestly, this tree didn’t show any further signs of stress even after the heat waves. The branch in question never defoliated and never progressed. No sample was ever taken. Field diagnosis is acceptable, but if you see anything that minute, you’d better be darn sure.

Not surprisingly, they somehow skipped a few neighborhoods and removed that tree I questioned over by the Minnehaha Depot. Swing and a miss there too.

It’s hard to find a place to begin to tell you how inefficient this program is. I now feel I must express my feelings to the full board. This morning, I called MPRB and put myself on next week’s agenda for “open time”. It’s time for the entire board to face up to reality and get a little DED 101. I’ll say as much to the board (and present a statement, fact sheets, and pictures of this tree) as I’ve communicated with you over the last year plus. As I said before, now is the time when you and the board need to make it clear where stand on this issue and whether or not you’ll back up words with actions. And I won’t accept lip service, rest assured. I hope the public doesn’t either.

Thank you again for your time.

8/17/05. As of the printing of this statement, I have not been contacted by MPRB management or staff regarding my latest concerns about removal procedures.

Daniel T. Myklebust

Clinton Avenue South

Minneapolis

Files available for downloading (below)

  1. University of Minnesota Extension Service Adobe Acrobat PDF document titled “The Dutch Elm Disease” – 10 pages
  2. Larger photograph of notched elm tree left standing with full canopy

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