Group saves the trees, one at a time

Mike Cherney

Group saves the trees, one at a time

As disease kills 200 elms each year, residents tout vaccine as viable solution

By Mike Cherney

The Daily Northwestern

Jim Seckelmann pumps 50 gallons of fluid through hundreds of trees every year.

Seckelmann, owner of Deerfield-based Glenwood Tree Experts, vaccinates about 200 Evanston elm trees every summer against Dutch elm disease. The vaccine, which is 98 percent effective, is one of the best lines of defense against a disease that has killed tens of millions of elms across the country.

And for Evanston residents Virginia Mann and Mimi Peterson, the inoculation effort — which will pick up again in June — remains the best way to save the city’s dwindling population of magnificent and towering elm trees.

Peterson and Mann co-founded To Rescue Evanston’s Elms, or TREE, two years ago to raise awareness about Dutch elm disease. And as the city loses about 200 elm trees every year to the disease, TREE is working towards the vaccination of all the city’s 3,000 elms, taking advantage of both public and private participation.

The group held a number of public seminars last year and also can receive sizeable discounts on doses of the Dutch elm vaccination for Evanston residents — all in an effort to ensure that elm trees have a future in Evanston.

“When I was growing up, virtually every street in Chicago was lined with elm trees, and if you take the time to go look at one, you will be astonished by their beauty,” Mann said. “There is nothing we can do to replace a mature elm tree.”


Dutch elm disease is caused by beetles that were transported to the United States on ships in the 1930s and feed on the bark of elm trees.

The beetles leave a fungus on the tree, which then grows through the branches and down to the trunk, killing the tree.

The disease also can be passed through the roots of one elm tree to another nearby, and it has resulted in the destruction of entire city blocks’ worth of trees for the past 50 years.

But there is hope.

Seckelmann provides that hope in the form of Arbotect, a fungicide that kills the beetle and stops the fungus from growing through the tree, for about $300 to $400 per tree. The vaccine is pumped through a tree’s roots up the trunk in three-year cycles, and about 600 Evanston elms currently are protected, Seckelmann said.

“The more people that do the injecting, the less (the) elms that will succumb to the disease and less beetles will be flying around,” Seckelmann said. “It will all help all residents, even up the North Shore.”

But the current effort to save Evanston’s 3,000 elm trees is not enough, Mann said.

“It’s kind of like we have the smallpox vaccine and we’re not using it,” she said. “No one’s listening and I don’t know why.”

The effects of losing a whole row of trees can be devastating, both aesthetically and financially. The death of a mature elm can cost as much as $50,000 in property value, Seckelmann said. And elm trees greatly reduce the cost of cooling and lawn watering by creating large areas of shade.

Betty Lambert witnessed the effects of losing elms three years ago, when the 1100 block of Madison Street that she lives on lost 10 to 12 elm trees to the disease. Due to the sheer scope of the destruction, the city paid for a surviving elm tree in front of Lambert’s home to be vaccinated.

“We were anxious about losing all the shade we had on the block — we did have a canopy that goes across the block,” said Lambert. “It was most definitely shocking to me that we were going to lose so many trees.”

‘Quite a project’

But such city-financed vaccinations of elms are rare. One of a tree’s goals is to get the city to share some of the cost of vaccinating the elms, because many residents cannot afford the $300 to vaccinate their trees. Mann said the city would have to pay thousands of dollars to remove a diseased elm on public property.

Although the city employs a concerted effort to spot infected trees and contain any outbreaks, Peterson wants to see more.

“Besides getting people involved, we also want to get the city involved,” Peterson said. “We could certainly find room in the budget to do that and identify a number of really valuable trees down by the lakefront. You can’t replace that.”

The city looked into inoculating elm trees while discussing this year’s budget, said Mark Younger, Evanston’s arborist. He said it would cost the city too much to institute an all-inclusive program. Because the vaccine can’t protect against root infections, every tree would need to be inoculated to guarantee success.

“It’s not a cut-and-dried answer,” Younger said. “In a situation when you have a stand-alone tree, those are excellent candidates to treat, because you have some certainty that you are going to be successful. When there is a lot of elms, it becomes quite a project to manage all those trees.”

Nevertheless, Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) said she was hopeful that some money could be set aside for inoculating elm trees next year.

But she implored residents to look into inoculating their own trees in the meantime, and told her constituents at a town hall meeting earlier this month to contact Mann for more information.

Jon Hubbard, who lives in a condominium building at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, has inquired about vaccinating an elm tree in front of his building that lies on city property. He likes the idea, but with the relatively high cost, he said the city should take a more active role in protecting arboreal assets.

“I myself am not willing to pay for inoculation for trees that are on public property,” he said. “My suspicion is to prevent disease would probably require proactive action rather than just the reactive action of waiting for concerned citizens to call.”