Portland homeowners on the hook for costly elm tree removal
Wendy March and Jubal Prevatte were devastated when they called an arborist this spring to have four 100-year-old trees inoculated against Dutch elm disease. The Northeast Portland couple found it was too late: Two of the elm trees already were dead and the other two likely were infected.
Then they were stunned to discover the city of Portland no longer takes responsibility for removing them.
"It never occurred to me to look at street tree maintenance as part of the cost of owning a home," said March, originally from England. "I didn't even know that was a thing."
A very expensive thing.
The lowest bid to remove the two street trees was roughly $10,000. Add to that two elms in their side yard and the total hit $20,000. The high bid was closer to $40,000.
Previously, Portland crews removed elms infected with Dutch elm disease in the right-of-way (typically between curbs and sidewalks) to prevent the fast-spreading disease from infecting nearby elms. Starting July 1, the city shifted that cost to adjacent property owners as part of the new fiscal year budget. City councilors approved the budget in June after two months of meetings and public input.
City officials cite equity and budgetary reasons for the shift. The estimated $230,000 in city staff time freed up will instead be spent maintaining 141 city-owned heritage trees, as well as park trees, said Larry Maginnis, the city's Urban Forestry operations supervisor.
Those trees are spread across the city, while elms tend to be clustered in neighborhoods like Eastmoreland, Laurelhurst and Ladd's Addition. Previously, all diseased trees except Dutch elms were the property owner's financial responsibility.
"The perception and the reality was more city resources were being concentrated in more affluent areas," said Mark Ross, Portland Parks & Recreation spokesman. "Those resources now are spread across the entire city for any city tree. It's not a perfect solution, but it is more equitable."
David Kaplan, a volunteer with Save Our Elms' Ladd's Addition affiliate, said his neighbors are really upset about being at financial risk if a street tree next to their home gets Dutch elm disease.
"We had some lots where people lost seven elms in one year. If this had been the law of the land then," Kaplan said, "it would have bankrupted them."
Twenty years ago, the nonprofit organization started fundraising to inoculate elms, later expanding to other neighborhoods. The city provided an arborist who helped train volunteers and oversee inoculations, which cost $125 a tree. With 35 to 40 volunteers, the crew could inoculate 100 trees in one day, Kaplan said.
"About 10 years ago, we started losing trees at an alarming rate," he said. One year the neighborhood lost 17 elms, including some that were recently inoculated. They tried a more intensive and costlier inoculation method, but some of those trees still got the disease.
Two years ago, the group stopped inoculating. Now its focus is on reforestation and pruning to stop beetles from invading dead wood.
Ladd's Addition has lost 65 elms over 20 years, with 185 remaining, Kaplan said. But volunteers have planted 250 disease-resistant elms.
"The goal has been to slow it down so the new grove we're planting behind it can take shape without the neighborhood turning into the wastelands that cities in the Midwest and back East did when those elms were lost," Kaplan said.
The city has cut aid for neighborhood-based inoculations, though it funds a monitor who identifies possibly diseased trees. Other Save Our Elm affiliates have shrunk or ceased operating.
"So our frustration level is pretty high," he said. "I think the city is taking the approach of the sooner all the elms are gone the better."
Maginnis said that's obviously not the case. "We are strapped," he said, and it took four staffers two days to remove a single diseased elm.
The city is losing about 50 elm trees a year, despite efforts to save them, Maginnis said. That's about 1 percent of the city's elm population, according to last year's Urban Forestry Elm Report.
And Dutch elm disease isn't the only threat to Portland's trees.
"This is just one of dozens of pathogens that we're looking down the barrel at," Maginnis said. "There are so many more of these diseases on the horizon."
Get the facts on Dutch elm disease
• Dutch elms became popular street trees because they create an arching canopy when grown together.
• Dutch elm disease is a fungal pathogen that's highly contagious and fatal to the trees.
• First detected in the U.S. in 1930 in Ohio, it has decimated street trees in East Coast and Midwest cities.
• It hit Oregon in 1973 in Ontario, and appeared in North Portland's Overlook Park in 1977.
• Dutch elm disease usually spreads through elm bark beetles or roots connected to those of nearby elms. The fungus invades the tree's vascular tissue, preventing water from moving throughout the tree.
• Infected trees must be cut down and the wood destroyed to prevent further infestations and insect nesting. Wood must be chipped, debarked or buried, and can't be stored as firewood.
• A sudden leaf wilting, browning or drooping, often on a single branch during spring or summer, is a primary symptom.
• Fungicide can be injected to help prevent the disease.
• Pruning dead wood, which attracts elm bark beetles, also is key to preventing the disease.
• To report a possibly infected tree, call 503-823-8733. @
• Property owners who can't afford to pay for tree removal might be eligible for financial assistance through the Portland Housing Bureau. Call 503-823-3336 for details.
— Mara Stine
Sources: Portland Parks & Recreation, Urban Forestry Division; USDA Forest Service