Arbor specialists plan our urban forest for generations to come

  Certified arborist and tree climber Aaron Meyer thins
  branches off a Honey Locust tree along Harwood
  in Homewood.
(Photos by Mary Compton/H-F Chronicle)
 

Scanning the trunk of the tree  a silver maple — it was easy to see signs of decay.

A pair of large branches were already dead. Three large holes — perhaps home to squirrels and signs of internal cavities — dotted another branch. Spring buds were only visible at the very top of the tree.
 
“This is a tree that has lost its vigor,” said Dave Becker, Flossmoor’s village arborist.

The tree, aptly enough, is located on Maple Road. Becker pointed down the street and said that every parkway tree on the block was a silver maple.

When the homes were built on this street, probably in the mid-1960s, silver maples were overwhelmingly the tree of choice. Across the Chicago area, there are more silver maples on parkways and in backyards than any other tree.

“They’re easy to plant and they grow fast,” Becker said. Also, homeowners like silver maples, he said, adding they are good shade trees that, in the fall, provide a seasonal treat when their leaves erupt into bright colors.

However, Becker said, silver maples have a definite lifespan  about 45 to 50 years  and the end is nearing for many trees planted in the 1960s.

Parkway trees, he said, have a set of stress factors all their own. The growth of root systems is limited. Soil in residential neighborhoods might not be right for the tree. And salt from winter plowing can be toxic.

The tree on Maple Road, which has been catalogued with a number by the village, will come down this year, Becker said. 

Flossmoor, like other communities, annually takes down a certain number of trees approaching the end of their lives. Following Becker’s inspection, the silver maple was added to the list.

A marvel of engineering
They are the largest life forms in our midst.

They pump oxygen into the air and help keep it clean. They cool our houses in the summer. They reduce flooding and help prevent soil erosion.

They frame our landscape and make our world more beautiful during all four of our Midwest seasons.

Every day, it is possible to look with awe at the trees that surround us. Our temperate climate, with plentiful moisture,  allows large deciduous trees to thrive and we are the beneficiaries of a miraculous biological process that seemingly never ends.

“When you think about a tree, you realize that they are a marvel of engineering,” said Dave Ward, the grounds superintendent at Coyote Run Golf Course. He supervised the planting of more than 200 trees at the golf course when fairways were reconfigured prior to its 2003 opening.

Trees need to pump water through a complex system of roots and branches, Ward said. It is a system that can reach as high as a 10-story building. Trees have enormous weight. And, of course, the system is 100 percent natural. Trees may need to rely on humans to make sure there is adequate soil and water. Once basic needs are provided, the trees will do the rest of the work.

Homewood and Flossmoor are responsible for tens of thousands of village-owned trees, mostly on parkways  that stretch of land between the street and sidewalk. Both towns have certified arborists who have the main responsibility for tree management. In recent years Homewood and Flossmoor have stepped up efforts to keep their trees healthy and to replace them when they become too sick to survive.

“We’re trying to get more diversity,” Becker said. In the future, it’s doubtful that any new silver maples will be planted on parkways in either Homewood or Flossmoor.

Jim Tresouthick, Homewood’s forester for the past 19 years, calls the village’s collection of trees “an urban forest.”

A first-ever complete inventory of Homewood’s trees is now under way. Once the survey is finished, the health of every village-owned tree will be identified. However, Tresousthick already knows that the village is responsible for about 15,000 trees.

Flossmoor already has a full inventory of the trees  more than 8,000  maintained by the village.

In both communities, maintenance of healthy trees is also a sign of pride in the community. Homewood takes pride in being a Tree City. Village officials in both towns know that tree-lined streets make a community more attractive to new residents, and are important to people who choose to live in their towns for many years.

“People say to me, ‘I moved here because of the trees,’” Tresouthick said. “Trees are one of the strengths in a community.” 

Trees have economic value too, Tresouthick said. Studies have shown that trees increase a home’s value, he said.

Each parkway tree has a value of about $1,800, Tresouthick said.

“Our trees represent millions of dollars of infrastructure. They are a resource in this community and we have to re-invest in our resources,” he said.  Similarly, each parkway tree increases the value of a home by 1 percent.

Landscaping, especially with trees, can increase property values as much as 10 percent, according to information provided by the village of Homewood. Homes on lots with many trees have 6 to 12 percent higher appraised values. 
 

Replenishing the urban forest
Homewood and Flossmoor both offer programs in which residents share the cost of new trees with the village. This year, Homewood gave residents a choice of seven types of trees, and Flossmoor offered six. Residents in both towns agree to pay half the cost of the tree. Both towns offered varieties of oak and one type of maple, but also hackberries, Kentucky coffee trees, bitternut hickories and other species.

Diversity is obviously key to the maintenance of the urban forest. Local arborists know that all the silver maples will need to be replaced with a much wider variety of trees.

That became abundantly clear after Homewood and Flossmoor had to take down thousands of ash trees that fell victim to a blight caused by a little-known Asian beetle. The emerald ash borer, first identified in southeastern Michigan in 2002, has been responsible for the destruction of millions of trees across the eastern half of the United States. The insect’s larvae causes the most damage by feeding on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients.

Prior to the blight, ashes were the second-most-common tree in the Chicago area, after silver maples.

In Flossmoor, the village took down more than 1,400 parkway ashes. 

Tresouthick knows the exact number of ashes that came down in Homewood  2,582.

Again, those are just village-owned trees. Residents were responsible for taking down ash trees on their property.

John Brunke, Flossmoor’s public works director, remembers the ash blight being very hard on many residents.

“There was one purple ash that a family had planted when they built the house about 50 years ago,” Brunke said. “The lady who’d planted the tree was still there. She loved that tree and did everything she could to save it. But in the end it had to come down.” 

In Homewood, research into how to best deal with the emerald ash borer started as soon as public works personnel heard about what was happening in Michigan, Tresouthick said.

“We looked into every possible management strategy, including the use of insecticides,” he said. The village’s Landscape Maintenance and Forestry building, located beneath a water tower just east of Center Street, became a research station where the ash borers were studied and Homewood’s arborists were in contact with scientists from across the U.S. and as far away as China.

By 2008, Tresouthick said, it was clear that “aggressive management”  cutting down the ash trees  was the only way to respond to the blight. There was no effective way to fight the ash borer and the village’s liability grew as long as doomed trees continued standing.

The village started taking down the parkway trees that year. A year later, crews started reforestation  replacing the ash trees that were removed. It took five years to take down all the ashes and about that long to replace every one of them. Eighty-nine species of trees were planted on parkways where ashes used to stand.

Tresouthick was asked if the reforestation was a successful operation.

The new trees are “doing very well,” he said. The biggest danger to them appears to be drivers who sometimes plow into trees.

Bryon Doerr, another certified arborist in Homewood, said that the ash borer blight was a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. Doerr wrote research papers on Homewood’s efforts to deal with the blight. In recent years, the village’s arborists have been contacted by 13 state foresters from across the U.S. looking for assistance in dealing with the emerald ash borer.

Taking a regional approach
The ash blight was a terrible event, Doerr said.

 “But we are proud we were able to replace all the trees and with so many different species,” he said. 

Homewood, with four certified arborists on staff, has been known for years as a south suburban leader in tree management. Tresouthick said that when he started in Homewood, active forestry was mostly going on in Chicago’s north and west suburbs. Now many other south suburban towns have an arborist on staff.

As that happens, the area’s arborists are taking a more regional approach. Tresouthick says that’s a very good thing.

“What happens in Flossmoor affects us,” he said, adding that the ash blight sent a clear signal that area communities had to work together on tree management.

For the past six years, Doerr has led classes at the Landscape Maintenance and Forestry building for people interested in becoming certified arborists. It is one of a few such programs in northeast Illinois and attracts students from around the Chicago area, and beyond.

Homewood’s Tree Committee  a sponsor of the village’s Tree Share  is currently offering monthly Green Thumb Saturday sessions that give pointers on trees and other plants. Flossmoor’s Becker led the April program on tree selection and planting. 

H-F’s arborists say their work is largely a labor of love. Tresouthick said he was influenced at an early age by a neighbor who was a forester and master gardener. He came to Homewood after working several years at the Cook County Forest Preserve District. Becker, Flossmoor’s first certified arborist, came to the village after working eight years at the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District. During those years, he attended classes on arbor culture at Joliet Junior College.

Doerr said he’s always been interested in improving the environment.

“This isn’t for us,” he says. “It’s for future generations.”

With the proper care, trees that are planted today may survive for another four or five generations.

“We often talk about leaving something behind for Homewood,” Tresouthick said. “Years from now, someone might say, ‘They did a nice job.’ It’s a passion for us.”
 

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