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Saving Endangered Elm Trees Is An Uphill Battle

by on May 12, 2014 6:00 AM

Both in State College and at Penn State, elm trees are facing serious danger from insects and diseases that threaten to wipe out the entire population.

Dating back to the early 2000s, Penn State had 300 elms on campus. Now, the total has dropped to 153, close to half of what it was ten years ago.

"It's been devastating," says Paul Ruskin, director of the Office of Physical Plant (OPP) at Penn State. "The look of the campus is changing. The area in front of Old Main used to be much shadier, so it's a great loss to Penn State alumni and the students around campus now."

In the last month, numerous elms have been removed on Burrowes road, near Rec Hall and the steam plant on the west side of campus. While Ruskin says the number of dying trees has slowed in the last few years, the university is still fighting an uphill battle to save one of the last large stands of elms in the United States.

In State College, the community is experiencing the same threat to its beloved elms. When Alan Sam took over as the town's arborist in 1989, there were 170 elm trees lining the streets. From that day forward, the impact of diseases has been catastrophic, forcing Sam and his team to stop planting elms altogether.

"As recently as five or six years ago, we had 60 or 70 street tree elms," says State College arborist Alan Sam. "Today, we're down to maybe one or two American Elms left."

After Dutch elm disease took its toll on neighborhood trees beginning in the '80s, elms began to slowly decline, but only a few per year. When a new insect-transmitted disease called elm yellows reared its ugly head in 2007, Penn State and State College were forced to remove dying trees by the dozens.

While the elms are surviving longer than originally expected, Ruskin says the university is still fighting a "double plague" of diseases, trying to find a way to stop what he calls a "losing battle".

"There were expectations a few years ago that [the extinction] would be quite soon," says Ruskin. "Due to circumstances that we're not sure the cause of, the speed of the degradation has slowed down and plateaued since the past few years. There's some good news in that it hasn't happened as fast as we thought, but it's certainly still happening."

To find a reason why the disease has felled so many elms, you'll have to go back one hundred years to when the trees were first planted by the university. Since the elms were stacked so tightly together, diseases quickly spread from one to the other before maintenance had a chance to react.

It's an issue OPP has been trying to correct for years.

"As the elms get taken down, we re-plant the campus in a manner that will not put us into the trap we're in now," says Ruskin. "You put in a nice stately row of elms, and it looks great, but if you get a disease of that species, it comes in and wipes out that row at the same time."

Penn State's "tree crew", a highly-skilled group of climbers, is responsible for monitoring insect movement on campus, trimming branches, cleaning debris, and checking the overall health of the trees on a weekly basis. They report to the tree commission, a team of OPP landscape workers and professors from the college of forestry and agriculture science that study the information and assigns ratings to each tree, ultimately determining whether or not it needs to be removed.

When a tree is removed, the current solution is to re-plant with a diversity of species, mainly Pennsylvania natives. White oak and other large shade trees, for example.

"People don't really realize what it takes to plant and maintain trees in an urban area like this," says Sam, who is also dealing with the loss of 27 ash trees in the past year due to an insect called emerald ash borer. "There's no native tree to an urban area. It's probably the worst place for trees to grow. So it does take a lot of hard work to keep those trees healthy and safe."

If it weren't for the dedication of arborists and tree professionals, the famous mall on Old Main might be completely bare.

"The reason we still have any elms at all is due to the work of Penn State scientists and the OPP tree crews that carefully shelter them and monitor the situation," says Ruskin.

In Ruskin's view, the motivation is due to psychological impact of losing a tree that's so near and dear to hearts of Penn Staters and area residents. The trees have a certain "biological mystique", he says, and the elms have played a major role in keeping college memories intact.

"When students go to college, they will often do their homework under the trees, maybe meet their future wife or husband under the trees," says Ruskin. "My daughter actually had part of her wedding ceremony take part with the elms. Some of the wedding photographs were taken beneath the Old Main elms. So it just becomes a part of your fond memories of campus after you graduate."

However, sometimes nature wins the battle against mankind, and it appears as if the elm diseases have won out. The campus will recover, but it may never have the same look and feel as it did for those who spent many a day reading, writing, and soaking in the shade under the large, billowy canopy of a tall American elm.

"It's like you got a one hundred year old grandmother that you dearly love, and you're doing everything you can to keep her alive," says Ruskin. "But in the end, it's inevitable what's going to happen."

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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