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This article was published 30/7/2017 (1100 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Robert Orr looks out at his Kingston Crescent neighbourhood, he feels as if he’s watching it die.
The tree canopy where he’s lived since 1995 is withering before his eyes, just one casualty in the city’s battle against Dutch elm disease.
And the situation is getting worse.
"If it keeps going like this, it won’t be the neighbourhood I moved into," said the soft-spoken, 61-year-old retired teacher.
"It’ll be completely different," Orr continued. "The trees really are such an important part of the fabric of this neighbourhood."
In the area where he lives, hundreds of elm trees have been lost in the past decade. City statistics show that 5,500 trees are lost to the disease each year.
When one of Orr’s neighbours moved to Kingston Crescent in 1975, he had 27 elm trees on his property. Now, he has none. Orr and his partner had eight when they first moved to the neighbourhood. This summer, their last tree was infected.
"One doesn’t have to be a tree lover to realize there are some very practical concerns here," Orr said.
"We’re down to our last one, which now has the disease. Two doors down, our neighbours have two with the disease. The tree directly across from our house in the park now has the disease."
Dutch elm disease spreads through the fungus carried on the backs of elm bark beetles. They lay eggs in elm trees in the spring, which go on to hatch and mature throughout summer before a new generation is born in the fall.
When diseased trees are not removed quickly – ideally during the summer they are infected – the disease spreads.
Orr is frustrated by what he views as the city’s lack of political will to shut down the disease.
Since the summer of 2016, he says he’s witnessed the city losing the fight. He says not only has the tagging of infected trees slowed down, but so has their removal.
Martha Barwinsky, the city's forester, admits they’ve fallen behind in efforts to remove diseased trees, but says they continue to tag them on schedule.
They do the best they can with the resources they have, she says.
"There are currently 970 trees marked last year that still need to be removed," she said. "We’re removing them, but we’re still behind."
The city has more than 230,000 adult American elm trees, which makes it the largest standing population in North America.
But, Barwinsky says they are at a critical point in trying to protect the city’s tree canopy.
"It’s a real concern," she said. "We have to catch up and get these trees removed and come up with a better model for removing diseased trees earlier."
Another concern is the arrival of the Emerald ash borer beetle, which isn't a matter of if, but when, Barwinsky said. The fear is it could coincide with the city battling Dutch elm disease, thus further dividing their resources.
If their arrival isn’t properly attacked, it could result in the death of all ash trees in Winnipeg. Once they arrive, she added, they're here to stay.
The city currently has 16 to 20 people working on surveying trees and is rerouting funds from tree planting to go toward the removal of diseased trees.
That, in Orr’s opinion, is a disastrous and short-sighted strategy.
"So just at the time we’re losing a lot of trees, they’re going to cut back on planting," he said. "That is a terrible, misguided way of thinking."
Orr tries his best to do his part by talking to his neighbours, calling 311 about diseased trees and writing letters to Trees Winnipeg and his city councillor. But he recognizes his efforts are limited and says he often receives no response from authorities.
He thinks the city needs to boost funding to the department that fights tree disease.
"We need to do something differently or we’re going to lose the canopy," he said. "Politicians need to be talking about this, educating people and encouraging them to plant trees. We need to get at the removal of all these diseased elm trees before it’s too late."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
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