South Sioux City Ash trees

Gene Maffitt, South Sioux City parks director, stands amid a pile of ash logs. The city cut down 35 ash trees last month to use for lumber for a cabin at the city's Community Orchard. Because of the emerald ash borer, the city likely will cut down hundreds more ash trees in coming years.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal

SOUTH SIOUX CITY | We become close to the trees in our yards and on our streets. When they must be cut down, they leave a huge gap.

When you lose a tree, it's almost like losing a member of your family, or at least a good friend.

That makes it harder to consider that hundreds, maybe thousands, of trees will be disappearing from our area in the next decade as cities brace for the arrival of the emerald ash borer, a nasty pest that has devastated forests and cities in other states, eliminating every ash tree in sight.

"I've seen what it does to trees. When you see what the emerald ash borer does to trees, it's devastating," Gene Maffit, South Sioux City parks director, said of trips he's made to Kansas City and Wisconsin, where the emerald ash borer has done great damage.

As far as we know, the pest hasn't arrived in Siouxland yet, but it's getting closer.

"At some point it'll reach here," Sioux City parks superintendent Kelly Bach said.

It's been found as near as Harrison County south of Sioux City and 40 other Iowa counties. It's crossed the Missouri River and was found in Omaha last spring. Maffit said the emerald ash borer can be in a community for two or three years before it's detected. By then, it's already begun killing trees.

The beetle's larvae eat the water- and nutrient-conducting tissue beneath the tree's bark, basically cutting off the tree's water supply and killing it in as few as two or three years. Once the beetle is found, it's usually too late to save the tree.

Local cities are deciding what steps to take before the beetle arrives. There are chemical treatments to protect trees. Some cities have begun cutting down their ash trees, eliminating the beetle's food source and the potential for safety and liability issues related to damaged and dead trees in public places.

Both options come with a cost. Chemical treatments can add up, especially when considering some cities have thousands of ash trees. The treatments also must be repeated every couple years.

Cutting down trees leaves a big hole in a community. Shady streets become bare. Parks become noticeably less green.

Maffit said 25 percent, about 3,000, of South Sioux City's trees on public land are ash. Bach said Sioux City has 11,000 ash trees in city right of way along streets and in parks.

That's a lot of trees, and it doesn't include those in residents' back yards and on acreages. It also doesn't include other species of trees that are threatened. Maffit said diseases affecting pine and maple trees could mean the loss of more than just ash trees. The losses could affect 50 percent of South Sioux City's trees.

Bach said he hopes to have an action plan before the city council this summer.

Some unhealthy ash trees have already been cut down, he said. Whether he'll recommend future removal of healthy trees remains to be decided. Bach said he's not going to surrender every ash tree to the emerald ash borer, especially in places such as Leif Erikson Park, where big ash trees shade the playground.

"We'll treat them because we can't lose them. It's unacceptable," Bach said.

South Sioux City has begun cutting down storm-damaged or unhealthy ash trees. Some of those trees have been cut into boards that will be used to build a cabin at the city's Community Orchard.

The time is coming when the city will cut down healthy trees to prevent them from being infested.

"You hate to cut down what seems to be a perfectly healthy tree, but when you see what happens to them, it's worth it," Maffit said.

Neither city has planted ash trees on public property for many years now, and they've been replanting other species of trees near ash trees so that when the ash tree is removed, an established tree already will be there.

Maffit recommends residents do the same in their yards.

"Really the best thing people can do is plant trees," Maffit said. "If you have an ash tree in a good spot, plant a tree near it so it's got a good start so when you have to take the ash tree out, you won't miss it so much."

Hopefully, we've got enough time to get new trees growing to take the place of those towering ashes.

It'll take time to make those new friends.

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