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Tiny Insect Changes Ann Arbor Landscape

Scientists believe the Emerald Ash Borer entered the U.S. from China almost ten years ago. It's been killing ash trees in the Great Lakes region ever since. The city of Ann Arbor, Mich., known for its thickly wooded neighborhoods, has lost most of its ash trees which made up about 15 percent of the city's urban forest. Ohio officials wonder if the same thing could happen in Columbus.

Christine Schopieray has lived in a quaint 2-story blue house on Ann Arbor's Daniel St. for about ten years. The home once had a 50-foot ash tree that was so big, Schopieray says, it seemed as though she and her husband were living in a tree house.

"I used to have a 94-year-old ash tree that sat in this spot and shaded my entire front yard," Schopieray says. "I never had a use for air conditioning. And I had a beautiful shade garden. And that's past tense."

About five years ago, the couple noticed the crown of the tree was dying. They called an arborist who said it was too late; their tree had to be cut down.

"It's a shame," Schopieray says. "We loved it. I actually couldn't be here when they removed it. It was too sad. It was like losing a friend that had been here since we bought the house."

The couple's tree was one of millions of ash trees infested by the Emerald Ash Borer, an insect that scientists believe entered the U.S. from China in the late 1990s. It was 2002 before the beetle was linked to the dying trees. The borer works much faster than diseases that have wiped out of species of trees.

"Unlike the elm trees that died, some died right away, some still haven't died. These died within a few years of each other so you just had thousands and thousands of dead trees all at once," says Kay Sicheneder, who oversees Ann Arbor's urban forest.

Sicheneder is driving along city streets that once were shaded by more than 7,000 ashes, most of which are gone now. Some dead trees still stand on private property.

"We've seen over 99 percent dead already so it's an eyesore if nothing else," Sicheneder says. "Here's some others hanging over a parking lot. You wouldn't want to park under that."

This city of more than 100,000 people, nicknamed Tree Town, is spending about $4 million dollars to remove the trees that might fall and injure people or cause property damage. Removal of trees on private property is the responsibility of the landowner. One homeowner living near Schembechler Hall took a less expensive route, leaving the hulking trunk of a gigantic ash still standing.

"The people couldn't afford to take that whole thing out so they took off all the canopy and left that trunk which is unsightly but safe enough," Sicheneder says.

Christine Schopieray tree removal was more expensive. She and her husband had a Bradford Pear planted in the place where their ash tree had stood.

"It was an expensive removal," Schopieray says. "It cost $1,300 to get it removed; $600 to have a new tree in its place. It makes those imports from China a little more expensive."

City officials are advising homeowners to save up their money. The city will eventually mandate the removal of dangerous ash trees that remain on private property.

The destruction caused by the Emerald Ash Borer has been extremely costly, but it has also been emotionally difficult on the people of Ann Arbor. Kay Sicheneder says it's brought some homeowners to tears. It's wiped out whole sections of shady streets, particularly in subdivisions where contractors planted just one type of tree - the ash. Even the University of Michigan's botanical gardens have scene dramatic change. David Michener is director. br>"Before, this was all a canopy all along the creek valley here and as you look at it. Now you can see a third of all the trees are dead. We've gone from a total shade covering and what we now have is a lot of sunlight coming through with a lot of standing dead timber," Michener says.

Michener walks down a gravel path that leads into the once densely forested section. Forestry students have felled a lot of the ashes along the path.

"This trunk is about two feet across, you think? You can see the growth rings clearly. I would guess this thing's about 45 or 50 years old. But what looks like someone has done some abstract modern art, these are all the tunnelings of the Emerald Ash Borer larva. And they just tunnel along and end up girdling the tree and that's what kills the tree."

Hundreds of thousands of borers infest a single ash which has been beneficial for woodpeckers. But they can only kill about 20 percent of the insects. Scientist and city leaders believe that replanting a more diverse tree population will help prevent such a catastrophic reoccurrence.

"It's at one level quite depressing," Michener says. "At another level, it's reality and let's deal with it. We're just going to have to grow a new forest. That's all there is to it."