A tree-lined stretch of the popular Keystone Trail behind the bustling Aksarben Village affords a vantage point to consider Omaha’s future when the emerald ash borer infestation takes its toll.
It’s not a pretty picture, that future.
But walking and talking with neighborhood and nature advocate Diana Failla makes it clear that all is not doom and gloom.
More than 100 ash trees line both sides of the trail and Little Papillion Creek for about one-third of a mile, from Mercy Road to Pine Street. About 40 of the trees are in city-owned right-of-way beside Aksarben Drive. About 70 grow on the College of St. Mary’s side of the creek.
The ash trees have grown in this location for some 40 years. They stand 40 to 50 feet tall. Their branches nearly reach each other, collectively casting shade for cars parked along the street and for the walkers, runners and cyclists who traverse the trail.
The bad news is, none of these ash trees is likely to survive the ash borer infestation. The pest will claim them along with thousands of other Omaha ash trees, as it has killed tens of millions of ashes around the nation.
The good news is, there’s still time to lessen the blow.
Failla, president of the Midtown Neighborhood Alliance and executive director of the Urban Bird & Nature Alliance, is among those advocating that homeowners, businesses and neighborhood groups work together with government and philanthropists to plan and plant for the future.
The topic is sure to come up on the alliance’s fifth annual Midtown Historic Garden Walk and Tree Tour, scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
State Sen. Heath Mello and Omaha City Councilmen Franklin Thompson and Chris Jerram are expected to be on a trolley tour of significant trees, Failla said. Graham Herbst, the eastern Nebraska community forester for the Nebraska Forest Service, will be there to lend his expertise.
Garden-walk tickets cost $12 and will be available at the starting point, the UNO Welcome Center, or from the Urban Bird & Nature Alliance’s website. The garden walk will feature fairy, perennial, pollinator and sunken gardens, a treehouse and more.
A couple seats remained on a trolley for the tree tour. They cost $15.
For more information and a list of locations, visit theurbanbirdandnaturealliance.com.
The tree tour will travel Regency and Regency Park, a neighborhood in Thompson’s district with close to 1,000 ash trees along streets and in yards and common spaces.
Regency residents are having discussions about what to do about the area’s ash trees. They’re facing questions similar to those faced along the Keystone near Aksarben Village. They’re mulling questions about whether to treat the ash trees with insecticide, whether to plant new trees to replace them, and if so, what type of trees to plant.
“The fact that they’re having the discussion and trying to educate themselves is awesome,” Failla said.
A certified arborist, she advocates planting trees in the understory of ash trees soon, while most of the ash are still standing.
She’s on the right track, said Eric Berg, community forestry and sustainable landscape program leader.
“Trees are a long-term investment,” he said. “The sooner you can get a replacement in the ground, the sooner you can benefit from it.”
But homeowners and neighborhood groups don’t need to be in a rush, Berg said.
He said it’s too late in the year to treat trees with insecticide to kill emerald ash borer, and it’s too hot and dry to plant trees right now.
“It’s going to take five-plus years to really see the impact of emerald ash borer,” Berg said.
He said injecting trees with anti-emerald ash borer insecticide will protect the trees for two years with each injection. But the injections won’t preserve the trees forever. After 10 or 12 years, the injection process will take its own toll.
Berg sees the injections as prolonging a tree’s life and giving a replacement tree time to grow.
That’s sort of the strategy that the City of Omaha will take on the ash-lined Keystone Trail stretch along Aksarben Drive.
The City Parks Department will examine the condition of the trees but expects to remove about half of the 40 in the right-of-way, City Forester John Wynn said. The city may treat the remaining trees with insecticide to prolong their lives.
That’s part of the city’s overall plan to cut down about 6,000 of the 11,000 ash trees on city property. Berg, of the State Forest Service, said cities do that because they aren’t able to keep up with removing trees once they all start dying from the infestation.
Asked whether the city will replace the trees with something else, Wynn said the city doesn’t have money for one-to-one replacements,
Failla said her group will help seek grant funding to replace trees there and elsewhere. She said Omaha foundations have been generous about tree-planting initiatives, and she is hopeful that they will pitch in to help restore the tree canopy after the emerald ash borer infestation.
Meanwhile, across the creek on the College of St. Mary Campus, more than 60 trees already are growing between the doomed ash trees and the Keystone Trail, near the college’s softball and soccer fields.
The younger trees include oaks and evergreens. They’re 10 to 15 feet tall.
They were planted seven years ago, said Christine Kasel, media relations coordinator for the college.
She said she wasn’t sure why, although the school has been preparing for emerald ash borers. It treated the ashes on its side of the creek last year. Kasel said the college’s president, Sister Mary Ann Stevens, wanted new trees planted there. Stevens was on retreat and unavailable for comment last week.
“It’s serendipitous, because eventually those ashes will go, and by that time we’ll have this stand developed,” Kasel said.
The college also recently planted a variety of trees west of the trail with a grant aimed at diversifying trees.
On a sunny morning last week, cyclist Ken Peters took a break beside the college’s fields during what he expected to be a 40-mile ride on the trails.
Peters, 74, rides on the Omaha trail system five days a week. He’s fond of this little stretch.
As he spoke, several cyclists whizzed past. Three office workers from Aksarben Village strolled by in animated conversation. A mother pushed a baby in a stroller.
“The trees are windbreakers, and every now and then we get a little shade,” Peters said. “Their beauty is a huge part. It brings joy, and some degree of serenity. The sound of the wind in the leaves is like music.”
It’s hard to imagine bare spaces where those ash trees now stand, Failla said. But she hopes that people will envision a renewed tree canopy in their place someday and take strategic steps soon to make that happen.
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