Portage officials have been overseeing the removal of ash trees since the arrival of the emerald ash borer in early 2015, but one former city forester contends their efforts have been inadequate.
Tim Raimer left his post in 2013 after 23 years as the city forester. He had a brain tumor and said he recognized he could no longer do the job. But before he began to have health problems, Raimer learned about the ash borer, a metallic green insect less than an inch long. He followed recommendations made by the state in creating a plan to deal with the pest once it was found in Columbia County.
Raimer said when the bugs were discovered, his plan was not immediately implemented, which has led to mismanagement of the infestation.
“Very little was done to be proactive with the problem,” Raimer said. “They did nothing to be proactive.”
According to information published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “Researchers and tree care experts agree that removing an infested tree may cost twice as much as removing a healthy tree, and removing a dead tree may cost three times as much,” and “treatment costs will be greater if you wait” to remove ash trees, which inevitably will begin to break apart due to the effect of the larva.
Emerald ash borer kills ash trees as worm-like larvae infest the tissue beneath the bark and pilfer nutrients from the plant, cutting off water and nutrients meant for the tree. The city has more than 1,000 ash trees. About 400 are on public land.
DNR Forestry Specialist Brian Wahl has been working with the city recently. He has provided resources to help people without forestry backgrounds understand the impact of the ash borer. He said the best option is to remove ash trees in favor of a different species.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop the emerald ash borer,” Wahl said.
Raimer was replaced by Parks and Recreation Manager Dan Kremer, who he and Wahl both said did not have experience in forestry work. Wahl said Kremer received some training on the subject.
Raimer said he was rebuffed when he offered to help the city deal with the ash borer problem.
The former forester had been overseeing multiple parts of the city before he resigned. When Raimer left, the city reallocated duties to different workers.
“It’s frustrating,” he said, adding that “it comes down to” the city administration “not being prepared to do what needed to be done.”
Raimer said that while he believes city workers have been doing their best, he criticized the city for taking too long to budget additional funds for tree removal. He said “it’s no one’s fault” because there were no available employees with proper training.
City Administrator Shawn Murphy said the city began implementing its removal plan three years ago. An updated inventory of city ash trees was created during that time, cataloging roughly 400 trees to eventually be removed and replaced.
Wahl said the updated geographical system has a great impact on the city’s ability to get rid of the ash borer.
“That’s huge,” Wahl said. “They know where their ash trees are.”
Murphy said the city sets aside $6,000 in its budget each year for tree maintenance, which includes cutting down dying trees and other work not related to the ash borer. When it began to deal with the infestation, an additional $10,000 was allocated annually. Murphy said he was unsure how many trees have been removed in the last three years, but said the city has a plan and is following it.
He added the problem was not handled more aggressively immediately after discovery of the ash borer because funding had to be identified.
“Obviously we can’t increase our budget on the turn of a dime,” Murphy said.
Wahl said a number of communities throughout the state have a similar struggle.
“It spreads quickly, and oftentimes, the budget can’t accommodate that,” Wahl said.
Raimer said he was concerned the public was not properly informed about the infestation, which likely will lead to more cost for homeowners attempting to extend the life of their ash trees through chemical treatments.
“It’s costly, but these trees are important to some people,” Raimer said.