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Ash tree deaths happening faster than expected
June 16, 2015
By Matthew Van Dongen

The city is nearing peak ash tree death faster than expected - thanks to a beetle infestation that has already devoured the entire year's chainsaw budget.

The emerald ash borer onslaught has so far forced the city to spend $1.6 million to take down 2,300 deadwood falling hazards this year - with easily as many again or more on the radar before the end of 2015.

The spike is also prompting the city to explore whether its contractors can offer private residents a discount on tree removal costs similar to that enjoyed by the municipality under its 10-year plan to remove 23,000 street ash.

"The peak is hitting now," said forestry manager Steve Barnhart, adding the spike in tree deaths - originally expected closer to 2017 - could continue over three or four years.

"What we have to do is be more reactive in terms of where we're cutting to ensure we keep pace with the number of trees that are dying."

The city approved a decade-long strategy in 2012 to cut down all of its 23,000 street ash because of the unstoppable advance of the invasive beetle. The initial plan, to selectively cut about 2,300 trees per year, was designed to lessen the impact to the leafy green canopy overhanging many neighbourhoods.

But that's not possible in ash-heavy, badly infested areas such as suburban Stoney Creek. A beetle infestation can kill a mature ash tree in two years or less, and the brittle wood makes it dangerous deadwood quickly thereafter.

Shirley Garrison still isn't used to the empty sky over her home on Meteor Boulevard, where about 20 mature ash were cut last fall - one in front of nearly every home.

"It's such a shame, although I understand why they had to do it," said Garrison, who has lived on the street for 20 years. "It still looks so wrong to me."

New species such as maple and locust have been planted in front of all the mostly attached homes - although several appear to have succumbed to the harsh February cold.

It will be decades before the street is shaded again, Garrison noted sadly - a reality driven home each day, now that the "blinding" sun can infiltrate bedroom windows.

Trees are also coming down by the dozen in two nearby parks, including Edge Lake and Hunter Estates, said ward Coun. Maria Pearson.

"It really is terrible," she said, flipping through photos she snapped of large stands of dead trees.

"It's horrible to see them come down, but it would be more horrible to leave them there until they become a liability."

Trees are infested and dying at a particularly rapid rate in Stoney Creek and in Mountain wards like 6 and 7, said Barnhart. The city will dip into reserves or transfer funds from other public works projects to ensure contractors keep up with the removal of deadwood.

On the upside, Barnhart said the city's plan to inject select trees in each ward with a vaccine to repel the beetle "appears to be working" in healthy trees. A new round of injections is planned for this year.

Barnhart said the city is also exploring the feasibility of a request from Coun. Tom Jackson to see if the city's tree-cutting contractors can offer a municipal-style discount - somewhere in the area of 15 per cent - to residents.

Depending on its size and location, the removal and stumping of a single large ash can cost as much as $2,000.

It's unclear how many ash trees are on private property in Hamilton; the city effort is focused on urban streets and parks, where liability for falling trees is considered the highest.

So far, the city has ordered fewer than 10 homeowners to take down dead ash trees, typically in response to neighbour complaints over safety.