It’s a nightmare on our elm-lined streets.
And, for that matter, in backyards and parks and assorted green spaces in which one of Winnipeg’s most prevalent tree species is found. The elm tree is under attack, and with each passing summer, the situation looks more like a battle on its way to being lost.
"One doesn’t have to be a tree lover to realize there are some very practical concerns here," is how one Kingston Crescent resident summed up the current situation in his yard, which was once in the shade of 27 stately elms. They all are gone, victims of the fungal foe known as Dutch elm disease, which is responsible for the demise of an estimated 5,500 elm trees in an average year in Winnipeg.
The disease, which is spread from tree to tree on the backs of elm bark beetles, first showed itself in Winnipeg in 1975. At that time, there were an estimated 280,000 elm trees in the city; by 2012, that number had been halved by the Dutch elm infestation, even as city crews worked feverishly each year to mark and remove afflicted trees in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. At a much slower rate, new trees have been planted to replace what has been lost from the city’s signature green canopy.
Simply put, city crews cannot keep up. There isn’t enough money; there isn’t enough time; and there aren’t enough people to keep pace with the fungal assault. Affected trees are being identified and tagged at an acceptable rate, but removal — the crucial factor in limiting Dutch elm disease’s creeping kill — has fallen woefully behind schedule.
"It’s a real concern," city forester Martha Barwinsky told the Free Press this week. "We have to catch up and get these trees removed and come up with a better model for removing diseased trees earlier."
It’s almost inevitable that the beyond-daunting task of controlling tree disease will soon be made doubly difficult by the arrival of the Emerald ash borer beetle, which launches an equally deadly assault on an entirely different tree species. Forcing an already beleaguered workforce to divide its efforts could lead to both strains of greenery being conquered.
As alarming as all this sounds, calls for increased funding for efforts to preserve Winnipeg’s green canopy are likely to fall on deaf ears. Civic officials are reminded daily that they’re grappling with a massive concrete-and-asphalt infrastructure deficit that reaches well into the billions, and citizens yell almost as loudly as their cars pound along pothole-lined streets as they do when the subject of a property-tax increase is raised.
Politicians and ratepayers alike would be well reminded that this city’s abundance of trees is an integral and indispensable part of its infrastructure.
Trees are more than an important part of Winnipeg’s character; they are essential to the city’s ecosystem and, in terms of raw asset numbers, Winnipeg’s trees have been suggested to have a structural value of $5.6 billion.
Doing more is difficult to ponder in an era of austerity at every level of government. But continuing the current practice of not doing enough to combat Dutch elm disease and other tree-targeting invaders will result in a quality-of-life deficit that cannot be measured on a balance sheet. Filling a pothole doesn’t take much in the way of imagination, but saving a forest canopy requires long-term vision, commitment and determination.
The best strategy for ending a nightmare involves the simple act of waking up.