Dutch Elm Resurfaces

Susan Rosenbaum | January 13, 2000

East Hampton's elm trees, one of its natural treasures, are being attacked in force once again by Dutch elm disease, an enemy that had been kept in check for years.

A major rescue effort on their behalf is under way, however. The East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society, which has been tending trees in public spaces here for more than 100 years, will launch an unprecedented three-year, $600,000 rescue and revitalization of the village's elms if its members approve the plan on Saturday.

The trees, whose canopy over Main Street is part of the community's signature, have not faced a crisis such as this since the 1970s, when 12 to 15 trees a year were lost to the disease, said Sandra Deutsch, a co-chairwoman of the L.V.I.S. tree committee.

Village Reinforcements

About 130 of them stand on village property, and 70 or so on private lands. All are at the mercy of a beetle that spreads the fatal fungus as its minions multiply in the bark of their branches. The disease also spreads through the roots of adjacent elms that have grown together.

Last summer's stressful drought, plus a series of warm winters thought favorable to the beetles, have increased the scourge, Ms. Deutsch said. Town Pond, where one of four remaining elms will probably be removed, is a primary problem site.

East Hampton Village is expected to pick up about 40 percent of the expense, which will come to about four times the usual amount spent annually on shade trees on public property here. At a special meeting last Thursday, Village Board members voted to increase from $13,000 to $52,000 the municipality's allocation this year to the L.V.I.S. tree program, in which the village acts as a "valid partner," Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. said.

"We are fortunate to have the money available," he added. "I believe it's the right thing to do."

More Funds Needed

Because the L.V.I.S. operates on a calendar year and the village on a fiscal one that begins in July, the village is expected to allocate another $28,000 or so from its 2000-01 budget to the L.V.I.S. Additionally, the village spends more than $100,000 a year on personnel, equipment, and contracts for shade tree care.

Meanwhile, the L.V.I.S. will have to raise from private donors - or borrow from a bank - roughly $100,000 by June 1, Ms. Deutsch said. "This is uncharted territory," she added, but "imagine how this village - Main Street and Newtown Lane - would look without trees."

The organization is considering establishing a multimillion-dollar endowment fund for the care of shade trees. At the moment, only "seed money" exists in the fund, said Ms. Deutsch, adding, "Checks will be welcomed."

Replacements Not Covered

Over the past several years, the L.V.I.S. has spent roughly $20,000 annually on the elm trees alone, $18,000 of that for treatment and a little more than $2,000 for what is called "sanitary pruning," according to Mary Fallon, the organization's president.

Mrs. Fallon noted that some of the elms had developed cankers, or portions of scarred bark, as a result of several seasons of drought. A different fungicide than has been used in the past may be more effective, she said.

The $600,000 will cover deep-root feeding, fungicide injected directly into the root system, the addition of compost to the soil, and pruning, tree re movals, and disposal, including cart ing away and grinding infested tree bark.

It does not include the cost of replacing any felled trees, she added.

One Wound Or Three?

"There is a lot of science to this," Ms. Deutsch said, "but a lot of art, too." She said the tree committee sought the advice of several arborists, who will be asked to bid on various portions of the three-year proposal, as well as authorities on Dutch elm, such as George Hudler, a professor of plant pathology at Cornell University.

On Professor Hudler's recommendation, the L.V.I.S. will hire as its consultant Dr. H. Jay Stipes, a plant pathologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.

Arborists differ, she said, on precisely how to inoculate the trees - that is, whether to inject a tree through a relatively large hole once, or annually for three years through smaller ones. Each injection creates "a wound that has to heal," said Ms. Deutsch.

To Seek Bids

While Doc Whitmore of the Amagansett nursery that bears his name has been the society's longtime principal arborist, the tree committee is expected to seek bids on the work from others, including Conrad Decker of SavATree and Ray Smith and Associates, both of Southampton. Both firms have provided pro bono advice in recent weeks, Ms. Deutsch said.

The expanded tree program must be put out for bids, Mrs. Fallon said, because of its breadth.

Several experts recommend spraying pesticides to control the beetles, but for several years the L.V.I.S. has used only fungicides by injection. They are Lignasan, Fungisol, and Alamo. Two others, Arbotect and Tebuject, are under consideration for the spring.