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Destructive tree disease found in Ogden Canyon, arborist asks community for help

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WEBER COUNTY — Arborist Jerry Auble was shocked when he was called in for a job at a residence about three miles up Ogden Canyon in late July.

A tree company asked him for a consult on a project where they ran into several diseased American elm trees. They didn't know what they were dealing with.

Certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), Auble is the kind of arborist who tries to save diseased trees, not cut them down.

But first he has to diagnose them.

"I kind of had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that 'I hope that's not what I think it is,'" Auble said, describing his reaction after first examining the trees.

As he examined them, he found telltale signs of Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease that destroys an American elm's vascular system — the system that pulls water from the ground and circulates it throughout the tree. 

The fungus plugs up the system so the tree can't get water, Auble said.

There's no cure to the disease, so affected trees need to be cut down.

Once the fungus is in one American elm, it can travel to other American elms nearby through their intertwined root systems.

There is a preventative treatment where trees are injected with fungicide, but it won't work after the tree is already infected.

Dutch elm disease is carried by the European elm bark beetle, which do significant damage to the tree in their own right, despite being tiny — only 1/13 to 1/8 of an inch long, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The hallmark sign of the disease is a pattern in the tree's hardwood that can be seen if the brittle bark of the dead or dying tree is removed, exposing the hardwood.

The pattern is created by the beetles, who dig a line in the hardwood where they lay their eggs. As the eggs hatch, the larvae crawl out of the line, making their own path through the wood.

The larvae lines fan out from the central line, creating a pattern that looks like a feather or a butterfly.

Auble was sick to his stomach because Dutch elm disease is not common in the area, and to his knowledge, it hasn't been found up Ogden Canyon.

The disease has reeked havoc on American elm trees across the country, but Utah has remained relatively protected, though some trees in Salt Lake have been diagnosed with the disease, Auble said.

American elm trees were once one of the most common trees lining the suburban and city streets of the United States, Auble said.

They are abundant in the Salt Lake area in Liberty Park, Pioneer Park and all throughout the Avenues, he said.

Dutch elm disease was first found in American elms in the U.S. in the 1930s, and it decimated the American elms across the Midwest, causing cities to remove vast numbers of dead trees.

After researching the disease, Auble was worried. To be sure, though, he wanted a lab to test samples from the trees.

Auble usually sends specimens to a Utah State lab for diagnosis, but that lab wasn't able to diagnose Dutch elm because it's not common in the area.

After doing some research, he found that a lab at Oregon State that is capable of testing for the disease, and he sent them some samples.

A couple of weeks later, on Aug. 9, he received the results, which confirmed his fear.

"We were pretty shocked when we got the news back. We didn't know if we could contain it," Auble said.

The affected area around the residence where Auble first encountered signs of Dutch elm is probably not ground zero.

Auble found more trees several yards down the Ogden River that he estimates have been dead for a year or two. He thinks this area is where it might have started.

They had all the signs of Dutch elm disease — and they're on both sides of the river, so the disease is already on the move. 

All of the diseased trees Auble has found line the river, and one of them has tipped over and is lying in it.

It's possible that diseased wood could travel down the river and spread the disease to trees in Ogden City.

Though American elms are less common than Siberian elms in the area, there are still significant potential impacts if the disease spreads and kills them.

The dead wood can create fire risk.

"This is very close to being a native forested setting. (Nearby) is Wasatch Forest. So when this gets dry, and they start dropping on the ground like that ... if you get a lightening strike ... in the right weather (the dead trees) are like standing match sticks," Auble said.

The trees lining the river also prevent erosion, which will increase as they die. More sediment in the water can affect the fish, he said.

The decomposing matter from the dead trees getting into the water can also feed the growth of algae.

In addition, the loss of trees means less carbon captured from the air, further contributing to the earth's warming temperatures.

Auble said the trees were vulnerable after several years of drought and higher temperatures. When trees are dehydrated and stressed, they're easier for the beetles to burrow into.

The disease was originally transported to the U.S. in lumber from Europe.

Now, it travels around the United States in firewood — even in the wood pallets and wood shavings that are commonly used to ship goods.

Firewood is probably how the disease came to Ogden Canyon, Auble said, though it's difficult — if not impossible — to determine how it arrived.

Now, Auble wants to get the word out — first that people should not take firewood out of the canyon.

The feather pattern made by the beetle, in addition to bark being covered with pin prick holes, are signs that firewood is diseased.

With hunting season and the impending winter, he is concerned that more firewood is likely to be transported out of the area.

One person bringing diseased firewood home could wipe out all the American elm trees in their neighborhood, he said. The best way to prevent the spread of the disease is to buy kiln-treated firewood.

Alternatively, the bark can be removed from the wood, burned and buried, and the hard wood will be safe to use as firewood, Auble said.

People should not spray firewood with pesticides because the air in their homes will be contaminated when the wood is burned.

Auble also wants to ask property owners in Ogden Canyon to allow him and other arborists to look at the trees on their land.

Most of the affected area — Auble estimates about 90% — is on private land, so he's not even able to asses the scope of the damage or determine a perimeter to contain it.

Certified arborists like Auble can be found on ISA's website (www.isa-arbor.com) using the association's Find an Arborist tool.

Even once assessed, the process of removing the trees is expensive.

Owners of the residence in Ogden Canyon where Auble first found the disease have already tapped out their budget removing a dozen trees and as many as 20 more trees of varying sizes may need to be removed, which would cost at least $15,000 more, Auble said.

Auble contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They can provide guidance on the issue, but the department does not offer practical help with removing the trees and containing the spread of the disease.

Auble hopes that local and state governments intervene and even declare the area a disaster area to get some assistance, he said, since property owners may not be able to afford removing the trees on their own.

Community donors, if interested, could also help pay for the work to remove the trees, which would likely require a crane — at this point, Auble is looking for whatever help he can get.

He thinks the investment would be worth it to keep the disease from spreading.

It's an issue of paying some now or paying more later, he said, especially if the disease spreads to trees in the city.

"We're talking about cleaning up 50 or 60 trees (now)," Auble said, "or maybe 5-600 trees."

A removal of a large tree costs $4,000-5,000 — if all goes well, he said. If there are power lines and other complications like closing down roads, it can be much more.

At that rate, removing 600 large, dead American elms in the Ogden area would cost at least $2.4 million.

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