Urban Forest Strike Team members in Taylorville, Ill., last month assessing damage from a large tornado that hit the town in early December. Submitted photo

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When a large tornado touched down in Taylorville, Ill., about three hours southwest of Chicago, in early December, it not only injured 26 people and damaged more than 500 buildings, but also significantly damaged more than 100 trees. About 25 of those trees needed to be removed, and the rest of them required extensive care.

Evanstonian Paul D’Agostino, who is the City’s Environmental Services Bureau Chief, led the all-volunteer Urban Forest Strike Team that traveled to Taylorville in February to assess the damage and make recommendations for the removal and care of the trees.

Mr. D’Agostino said that of two dozen tornados that touched down in Illinois on Dec. first, only one hit a populated area, and that was Taylorville. He worked to gather a team of volunteers that could meet in Taylorville and to find a string of dates that would not conflict with holidays. He had to reschedule to avoid extremely cold weather.

On Feb. 11-13, Mr. D’Agostino met with three other volunteers to walk through Taylorville street by street, taking a complete inventory of all the damaged trees in town. He said that the poorer areas of town had been hit hardest, but that the city of Taylorville was helping out with trees on private property, as well as working on those that are located on public lands.

Some of the trees that Taylorville city workers had marked for removal were determined to be salvageable by Mr. D’Agostino and his volunteer team. This correction of scheduled removal is in keeping with one of the top goals for Urban Forest Strike Teams, to evaluate trees after storms recommending removal where necessary and saving as many trees as possible. This also involves finding unseen damage – damage untrained individuals might not find that would ultimately cause problems with the trees.

Urban Forest Strike Teams operate under the jurisdiction of the Urban and Community Forestry program of the U.S. Forest Service, and have been in operation since 2007, when the teams were initiated to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. D’Agostino, who was a part of the Hurricane Katrina effort, described how they went about the work in Louisiana. He said that people were skeptical of them when the team walked around in residential areas, but that with some questions and answers they were generally welcomed to carry out their assessments.

Asked how he ended up caring so much about trees, Mr. D’Agostino explained that in college he majored in plant and soil science, took a job that had opened up with the City of Evanston in landscape gardening and then saw his interest in forestry grow through the years.

There are 33,000 trees in Evanston, but Mr. D’Agostino said he would like to see the number 35,000, which would mean that the City’s available space for tree planting had been filled. Diversity of the tree population in Evanston is also one of the priorities Mr. D’Agostino cited. “We’ve worked at increasing diversity of the trees, trying not to plant more of anything that is more than 10% of the tree population – maples, lindens and honey locusts. We struggle to find enough native trees to plant as we’d like to, and we can always use more budget for trees.”  Individuals can donate for tree purchases at www.iheartevanstontrees.org.

How People Can Help Trees Thrive

• Water the parkway trees, especially when there has been little rain.

• Avoid “volcano mulching” (piling-up of a mound of mulch around the base of the tree), which he said promotes rot. Instead Mr. D’Agostino suggests spreading mulch 2-3” deep across the whole root zone (the broader diameter around the tree).

• Keep power tools, like weed eaters, away from the base of trees, as they can cause cuts in the trunk that will allow parasites to enter and damage or kill the tree.

• Prune trees in winter months, when parasites are dormant and will not enter and harm trees.

• Become a “tree keeper” through the Chicago organization Openlands: https://openlands.org/trees/treekeepers/.


Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...