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posted: 8/21/2012 10:23 AM

Editorial: What the emerald ash borer teaches us

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  • An Emerald Ash Borer sits on an ash tree in Campton Township, where the first outbreak of the beetle infestation in Illinois was found.

    An Emerald Ash Borer sits on an ash tree in Campton Township, where the first outbreak of the beetle infestation in Illinois was found.
    Daily Herald Staff Photo / Rick West rwest@dailyhe

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The term "leafy suburb" is used often enough that it's become cliché.

We love our trees, paying a premium for homes that have large ones, anchoring swings and treehouses in their limbs and mourning when windstorms knock them down.

But our suburbs are becoming a lot less leafy, thanks to the emerald ash borer -- a shiny green beetle that's become the scourge of Northern Illinois just six years after it first was spotted here, in a subdivision west of St. Charles in Kane County.

Thousands of ash trees have died or been pre-emptively cut down. But removing trees failed to curtail the pests' spread, and the tree loss is expected to escalate for the next five to seven years and decimate a species that makes up nearly 20 percent of the Chicago area's tree canopy, as Daily Herald reporters Deborah Donovan, Eric Peterson and Melissa Silverberg noted in a series ending today.

For those of a certain age, this sounds all too familiar.

Dutch Elm Disease arrived in the Chicago area in 1954 and within a few years claimed thousands of trees. Once-tree-lined suburban streets became as bare as if the parkways had been clear-cut.

Like Dutch Elm Disease, the emerald ash borer is not just an aesthetic blight. Towns and property owners have to decide between trying to treat trees or cutting them down, to the tune of an estimated $2.1 billion in Illinois over the next decade.

We missed a lesson from Dutch Elm Disease, letting one tree species once again dominate and making its loss that much worse. The allure of ash trees -- they're inexpensive, fast-growing and stately -- gave them a near monopoly in some subdivisions built over the last several decades and on public land.

"This shouldn't have had to happen twice," said Mark Spreyer, naturalist at Stillman Nature Center in South Barrington.

It's worth taking a look at why that happened, not to blame, but to learn.

Some towns are taking steps to make the suburban tree population more diverse, and thus more able to withstand an onslaught that singles out one species.

Schaumburg is putting in place restrictions capping any particular species at 7 percent of a total forestation plan. It's a good example for others to follow.

Homeowners also should take note, knowing what's in their yards and neighborhoods and doing some research before planting, rather than snapping up whatever tree a plant nursery says is its most popular.

Unfamiliar names like catalpa, Kentucky coffee tree and Turkish filbert are worth a look, some experts say.

If you love your trees, a little extra effort now will help to make sure they will still be here, even after the next voracious bug comes to town.

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