Grant to help Kalispell combat elm disease

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Kalispell's urban forestry battle against Dutch elm disease is getting a boost from federal stimulus money.

The city is known for its lush canopy of deciduous trees lining its public streets.

But with an inventory of 369 American elm trees on the public right-of-way - 38 that already have been cut down and 40 more identified as dead and hazardous because they are infected with Dutch elm disease - there's a real risk of losing a substantial portion of that canopy. The disease is a fungus that can spread quickly if unchecked.

So when the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation offered $325,000 to cities to conduct innovative community tree projects, the city of Kalispell applied for and won a big chunk of it: $93,500.

The grant comes through the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service. It will be matched up to $30,330 by city monitoring, materials, pruning and wood hauling. Trees will be ground into fuel for Glacier High School's biomass boiler.

City Council members on Monday night voted to accept that grant and appropriate the money.

It will allow the city to remove about 90 diseased trees and replace 66 of them by the time the grant expires at the end of December 2010. Only 66 are slated for replacement because not all the trees are in locations conducive to replanting.

Director of Parks and Recreation Mike Baker said each tree removal, stumping and selective replanting could range from $700 to $1,000.

Baker told the council that his department will hire private tree contractors in Kalispell to do the work. Only boulevard trees lining public streets will be targeted, not those in city parks and green spaces.

Homeowners will have ample notice before their boulevard trees are removed, Baker assured the council. His department will host an open house this winter to map out the removal plan, then each homeowner will be notified before the bucket truck shows up at the curb.

The department recognizes a tree's value in shade, energy conservation and aesthetics to the homeowners, he said, and plans a short turnaround time where trees are to be replanted.

Work accomplished through the grant is an extension of an ongoing citywide effort.

In 2000, the city created an urban forestry district to plant and protect trees in parks and other city property such as street boulevards. A property-tax assessment, based on square footage, initially raised about $120,000 a year for the district.

When budget talks were under way in August this year, Baker won an increase in that assessment to attack the growing problem with Dutch elm disease.

Council member Tim Kluesner wanted to use the additional assessment to establish a reserve savings account dedicated specifically to battling Dutch elm disease. City Manager Jane Howington explained the extra funding only scratches the surface of the work that needed to be done.

Baker said later that last year's $185,000 budget was supplemented with some cash reserves to take care of diseased trees. This year's budget urban forestry budget is $205,000, he said.

Until this year, the forestry assessment had remained at its 2000 level. It had been costing the owner of a 7,000-square-foot lot 79 cents a month, Baker said. This year's increase raised it 21 cents to $1 a month.

It will help the city try to keep abreast of the problem, but Baker pointed out in a council memo that this grant will let the city move from a reactive mode into a proactive stance that can slow the spread of the disease.

The fungus, spread by European bark beetles and by tree roots crossing underground, has destroyed entire tree canopies in other cities across the nation.

Replacement trees in the Kalispell program will be lindens, maples and other species that are at least 2 1/2 inches in diameter, Baker said. The city will stick with species that already are growing on a particular block.

If an entire block is filled with American elms that need removal, he added, the same species will be used for replacement to give a unified look.

"We're only going to be removing trees that are infected or dead. Trees that are in good shape will remain," Baker said later. "The problem is, Dutch elm disease is not selective. Every American elm will be lost eventually. The rate of infection will directly impact the rate of removal."

Reporter Nancy Kimball can be reached at 758-4483 or by e-mail at nkimball@dailyinterlake.com

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