The Unhappy Arborist's Guide to U.S. Tree Deaths

Nearly every part of the country is suffering some kind of tree die-out

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You may have caught the story in The New York Times today about "tree city" Atlanta's disappearing canopy. Even if not, you're probably vaguely aware of some kind of problem in the trees somewhere near you. That's because nearly everywhere in the United States is getting hit by some kind of major die-out of its native trees. It's enough to make you want to take the rest of the day off and go plant something.

Atlanta's "Treepocalypse": According to The Times, the city is removing one to two trees a day. It doesn't keep track of its lost trees, but citizens there have noticed "gaps in the canopy" all over town, and The Times refers to "thousands and thousands" of lesser trees, in addition to the 100-year-old oaks and giant hickories. The deaths have been due to weather, mostly, with arborists describing a "perfect storm" of conditions in recent years and months. A persistent drought was followed by this spring's spate of heavy thunderstorms that blew 50-mile-per-hour winds through the city. In addition, a "surge of invasive species and pests" has coincided with simple bad timing. Many of the city's trees were planted 80 to 100 years ago and are near the end of their natural life spans.

California's Ailing Oaks: Sudden oak death has wiped out nearly a million oak trees in California in the last 20 years, The Times reports. Whole landscapes have been transformed, and even healthy trees are being cut down to stop the spread of the disease. Sudden oak death "spreads via water, including windblown rain, and transplanted soil. Its advance has been considered inexorable, and the discovery of [an] uninfected patch of forest was considered sheer good luck." Now, scientists are experimenting with injecting a special kind of fungicide into their lucky strand of trees to try to find a way to stop the hardwood horror.

Michigan's Ash Assassin: The state has reportedly lost millions of its native ash trees to an invasive pest known as the emerald ash borer. The statewide news site Mlive reported in June that the insect, which scientists suspect came from somewhere in Asia on "solid wood packing material carried in cargo ships or airplanes," first arrived in Detroit in 2002. Since then, "dead and dying trees line city streets, suburban backyards, golf courses and retail parking lots as one of the most popular landscape trees falls to the beetle and its larvae." The insects can be stopped using store-bought pesticides, but their infestation has taken a huge chunk of the state's ash tree population already.

The West's Waning Whitebark Pines: These high-elevation trees are endemic to the Western United States, in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges and all over and around Yellowstone National Park. They were recently rejected from the endangered species list, not because they're not in danger, but because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have enough money to protect them right now. A warming climate has been blamed for the trees' demise, as the "once-cold temperatures of the trees' mountainous habitat formerly isolated them from the deadly mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), a native species that prefers warmer climes. But rising temperatures have brought the beetle into Yellowstone National Park, where the bugs have killed as much as half of the park's whitebarks in the past 10 years," according to Scientific American. Other plagues, such as the invasive European white pine blister rust fungus, threaten those specimens that the beetles don't get.

Missouri River Massacre: This spring saw dramatic and deadly flooding all along the Missouri River. Those affected had an immediate challenge in trying to save themselves and their houses from the rising waters. But after the river crested, the floodwater stayed. Now, the trees whose roots it covers are in danger of dying off as the water chokes off their oxygen during their growth period. "Homeowners will lose such flood-intolerant tree species as spruces and crab apples, and even tougher species such as cottonwoods, box elders, American elms, silver maples and bur oaks will sustain damage after what will likely be months in standing water," The Bismark Tribune reported. Plus, floodwaters may carry any number of toxins that could change the chemical balance of the soil.

DuPont's Questionable Chemical: A new herbicide popular with landscapers and gardeners who saw it as environmentally friendly has been identified as a leading suspect in the "deaths of thousands of Norway spruces, eastern white pines and other trees on lawns and golf courses across the country." The herbicide, Imprelis, is now at the center of a wide-ranging class-action suit against its manufacturer, chemical maker DuPont. Marketed as a weed-killer, the chemical is allegedly "equally effective at attacking trees, even when applied in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions," The Times reported.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.