Elm tree canopy over an Evanston street Photo from Virginia Mann

Evanston City Council members are moving forward on a change to the treatment of the City’s parkway elms. This plan has been in place since at some level since 2005 and is regarded as model program in preserving the endangered trees.

At the May 11 City Council meeting, in which officials participated remotely because of social distancing requirements, aldermen voted 7-2 in favor of Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson’s amendment to go with an alternate injection program that would treat half the City’s 1,815 parkway and other publicly owned elm trees in 2020 and the other half in 2021, rather than all at once.

The change would result in savings of roughly $330,000 savings in 2020, estimated Dave Stoneback, the City’s Public Works Agency Director.

“Delaying treatment of one half of the trees by one year would result in an additional 11 trees lost above the annual average,” Mr. Stoneback said in a memo, “but it would preserve cash flow in the general fund while giving the economy time to recover.”

 Ald. Wilson’s motion came as officials are contemplating steep cost-cutting moves because of the Coronavirus, and are already pushing employees to accept unpaid furloughs to help address a shortfall that has been estimated between $10 and $20 million because of loss of revenues from the Coronavirus.

The decision to delay treating some of the trees for a year, “is not a good choice; it’s a bad choice,” acknowledged Ald. Wilson about his amendment. “But we don’t have a good choice, so that’s the problem. And in a situation where you have a cash flow crisis, yes, this is pushing down the cost of the trees’ impact to some point down the road.”

Because of the current shutdown due to the coronavirus, “we’re not getting money from ticket sales, we’re not getting money from parking meters,” he pointed out.

Underscoring his resolve for a change, “I’m just going to tell everyone if the amendment doesn’t pass, I’m not going to vote for the whole thing,” [forgoing injections altogether] Ald. Wilson said.

Tonight I’m not going to do that, so proceed at your risk,” he warned Council members.

Other aldermen supported the amendment. Voting along with Ald. Wilson in support of his amendment to space out the treatments were Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Melissa Wynn, 3rd Ward; Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward; and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward and Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, voted against the proposal.

Ald. Fleming had argued against continuing the injection program altogether when the issue was first raised two weeks ago.

Her opposition was “not because I’m anti-trees and so on,” she stressed at the May 11 meeting, “but this is coming out of our General Fund, and we’ve just asked all of our staff to take 10 days off of work unpaid, and I just cannot communicate to our staff that I approve spending $700,000 on trees when they are sitting at home.”

Ald. Fiske was the only aldermen to speak outright in keeping the program as it is, arguing that “we’re taking so many steps backwards, not intentionally, but we’re going to end up in a much worse place.”

She expressed concern about a program that decides treatment on “a case-by-case basis.”

“I don’t know how we’re going to do that. I don’t know how in the world you divide up — which elms are going to be eliminated or which put off for a year, but you’re putting them at risk,” she argued. “And if we truly are committed to our healthy environment and keeping Evanston livable, this is just to me such an important program that we should stand behind. It’s well trusted; it works for us. I would much rather see us do a saving elsewhere. I would go back and say take my vote for a forklift [a piece of equipment item purchase earlier in the meeting] and place it for the trees. I think it’s important . To get a tree the size our elm trees now takes a hundred years. And when we lose them the cost of taking them down is huge and the emotional loss to the community is also significant.”

Responding to the vote, Virginia Mann, one of the co-founders of TREE (To Rescue Evanston Elms), the group that led the original movement in support of an injection program, called the Council’s decision “extremely disappointing that they are ignoring history and the input of experts and rolling the dice with our trees.”

“If they don’t have the cash to inject the trees, where will they find the cash to pay for overtime for workers cutting them down?” Ms. Mann asked.

“This is a decision that negatively affects everyone in the City, whether you live in a condo in South Evanston, a bungalow on the west side, a stately lakefront home or an apartment on Central Street,” she said. “Our environment, the ambiance of our community and ultimately, our property values will all be diminished by the loss of these irreplaceable trees.”

At the time TREE was founded, “Dutch Elm disease was making a resurgence in our community and we were losing hundreds of our magnificent elm trees,” Ms. Mann pointed out in a letter to the Council. “From 1997 – 2005, Evanston lost at least 1,352 of our majestic elm trees. This at an estimated cost for labor, equipment, replacement, etc., of more than $4 million.”

A big part of the group’s campaign in support of the Council adopting an elm tree injection program, than not broadly used at the time, “was not only because it would save our beautiful trees, but because it would cost far less than what we spent cutting them down and replacing them.”

Ms. Mann also attached a letter from Tom Prosser, the founder and CEO of Rainbow Treecare Scientific in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, which designed the City’s original treatment program.

 Dutch elm disease “is a highly aggressive fungus that grows in the elms vascular tissue “and gets into the elm through a beetle that feeds on its branches,” he noted.

He said research has shown that a treatment program can get 100% of those branches in the first two years, but in the third year the coverage drops to about 85%.

“If you do decide to wait another year [four years after the last treatment] to treat half the trees,” he said of the City plan, “you will likely lose 5% to 15% of them, depending on how well your City and surrounding cities manage the fungus in their area – which in many cases because of wild elms – is not very well,” he said.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.