Imagine Evanston without trees. A nightmare scenario by any definition. Evanston takes up 7.8 square miles of Illinois land, and is home to more than 33,000 trees of 169 different species on public property. By rooting in the ground and growing skyward, Evanston’s trees provide safe and secure locations for birds’ nests, food for animals, cool and shade against the sun’s glare and backstops to mitigate soil erosion and flooding. Trees generate oxygen for all creatures to breathe. Trees help to increase property values. Hospital patients who have views of nature get better faster and walking among or looking at trees has been shown to reduce stress in humans. With so much at stake, the RoundTable wondered, who takes care of our trees?

The City’s Public Works Agency is located southeast of the Civic Center at 2020 Asbury in a building called the Service Center. This is the hub where the crews who operate heavy equipment such as trash collection trucks; machines used for tree cutting, removal, and stump grinding; and snow plows start and end each day. The people who make the recommendations, plans and decisions about Evanston’s trees work on the second floor.

Paul D’Agostino, the chief of the Environmental Services Bureau, is a 32-year City employee and the man who manages all the projects under the broad categories of Forestry, Greenways, Solid Waste and Recycling. He brings a Bachelor of Science degree in plant and soil science plus decades of field experience as he helps develop plans for long-term maintenance, preventive care and replenishment of our trees.

Mr. D’Agostino works alongside Michael Callahan, the City’s arborist and forestry supervisor. Mr. Callahan’s educational background includes a B.S. degree in wildlife science and urban forestry, and a Master of Science degree in recreation, sport and tourism. Together these gentlemen and 16 highly skilled employees do the dangerous, dirty and essential work of caring for Evanston’s trees, parks and natural areas.

Both Mr. D’Agostino and Mr. Callahan credit an active and involved community in helping them. “We rely on citizen observers,” says Mr. D’Agostino. Two essential components in this process are the concerned neighbors who call, text and email the department—and the dedicated, knowledgeable and underappreciated Evanston 311 operators who route requests to all departments, alerting them of issues including dead or dying trees, overgrown areas, broken playground equipment, overflowing trash receptacles and storm damage.

Mr. Callahan observed, “With 311, we see the concerns of the public and are able to start a line of communication. If a person includes his or her phone number, sometimes it’s easier to call instead of trading emails back and forth. I let them know we have received their request. I explain that our time is scheduled, that issues of public safety such as storm damage and snow removal will always be the first priority, and that we will address their issue in time. Most people are very reasonable.”

Not surprisingly, in addition to routine 311 requests, much of their work is seasonal. Mr. Callahan explained, “winter is a great time to prune trees, especially oaks and elms. Spring and fall are planting times. Regular pruning and removals happen year-round.”  Between April and October every year, department personnel are out evaluating trees, in particular checking elms for signs of Dutch elm disease and examining ash trees for the tiny emerald ash borers (insects) that feed on them.

Mr. D’Agostino recalled how in 2006 when the emerald ash borers were first spotted on some of Evanston’s trees, he established a quarantine zone per the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s guidelines around the affected area, but the insects could not be stopped. They are 100% fatal to ash trees. At the infestation’s peak, the forestry crews were cutting down over 300 ash trees a year, and only about 1,000 of the original 4,000-plus ash trees are still alive. These remaining ash trees are either very hardy survivors or being privately treated by concerned residents with ash trees on their property. There is no City funding available for preventive treatment.

Fortunately for the American elms, a reliable fungicide with a 98% effectiveness rate became available in 2005. Mr. D’Agostino presented information about a treatment plan, timing and costs to the City Council. He was delighted when Council members saw the long-term value of such an investment and authorized him to implement his plan. Trees are injected with the fungicide every three years. If Dutch elm disease is caught early, crews cut out the infected part and inject the tree with the fungicide, which blocks and neutralizes any existing fungal infection. The City’s treatment plan worked, and the number of elm trees needing to be cut down has dropped dramatically.

The City’s willingness to preserve Evanston’s green infrastructure is rare, in Mr. D’Agostino’s view, but Evanston has a reputation for caring about the environment and investing in preservation. The City’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050 is another example of forward thinking and risk mitigation.

Although parkways (the area between the curb and the sidewalk) are owned by the City, interested residents who want to beautify the parkways surrounding their property are invited to present their plans—using approved plants—to the Forestry Division by mail or email at forestry@cityofevanston.org. Once the plan is approved, the City issues a free permit. Approved plants includes varieties whose growth patterns will not affect existing City infrastructure such as water pipes, plants that mature at 3 feet or less in height and plants not listed as official noxious weeds by the State of Illinois. One example: Milkweed is highly recommended because it naturally attracts monarch butterflies.

It is not unusual for residents to be emotionally attached to the trees on their property, in their neighborhood or favorite park. Mr. D’Agostino is familiar with several volunteer groups who take care of specific parks by weeding, pruning and planting from spring through fall seasons. In his experience, “if the habitat is there, animals will follow.”

Evanston’s location places it in the middle of the migratory pathway for all types of birds, not just highly visible Canadian geese. These birds rest in Evanston’s parks and refuel on the leaves, insects, nuts and berries from local trees. Mr. D’Agostino was instrumental in establishing the Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary, a habitat for breeding and migrating birds off the pathway in front of Northwestern University’s Segal Visitors Center.

Both Mr. D’Agostino and Mr. Callahan see their work as part of an essential partnership with the City and its residents. Says Mr. Callahan, “We are supported by the value and trust people have in us to protect and maintain the urban forest around us.”