LINCOLN SQUARE — What if a natural disaster struck Chicago ... and nobody noticed?
The Emerald Ash Borer, smaller than a penny, is barely detectable to the naked eye, and the deadly eggs it lays are tinier still. Yet these miniscule pests are relentlessly chomping their way through the city's ash trees — 20 percent of all trees in Chicago's parkways — and will eventually destroy every single one of the nearly 9 billion ash trees in North America.
"It's decimating a portion of the environment and it's like under the radar," said John Friedmann, founder of the Save Your Ash coalition. "If something were to take out 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest, there'd be international outcry. The same thing is happening in our country."
Can anything stop this evil villain?
You bet your ash.
"It's a natural disaster that can be managed," said Friedmann, a real estate broker by trade and self-confessed "tree guy" who moonlights as vice president of environment for the North River Commission.
Through Save Your Ash, Friedmann is reaching out to public officials and private citizens alike, not only to raise the alarm regarding the Emerald Ash Borer, but to educate people on the available treatment options — there's still no cure — that can spare a large portion of trees from the current 100 percent mortality rate.
An injectable insecticide called Tree-age (pronounced like triage) can temporarily halt the infestation in infected trees, with repeated booster shots required every three years.
"If you've got a giant tree 75 years old, you don't want to lose it. A tree can be saved if it's less than 50 percent infected," said Friedmann. "It makes so much economic sense and environmental sense."
He's been meeting with aldermen and community organizations to stress the potential consequences if the city's ash trees are allowed to die.
"When ash trees die, they become brittle quickly. Branches will come down in a strong wind," said Friedmann. "How's ComEd going to be able to keep up with power losses?"
Trees falling on houses create an insurance liability for homeowners, he added.
"If prevention is $200 and removal is $4,000 — we need to appeal to the bottom line," he said.
The loss of shade, fall color and, more importantly, water absorption are other concerns.
Chicago's Bureau of Forestry, which falls under the purview of Streets and Sanitation, has committed to treating all of the salvageable ash trees in the city's parkways, at roughly $60 per injection, by the end of 2014 — there are 94,000 total.
That leaves 400,000 ash trees planted on private property or in the city's parks.
The Chicago Park District anticipates the loss of 30,000 ash trees over the next 10 years, but has opted to forego treatment.
"Why?" Friedmann said. "Why let these things die? It makes no sense. That's just wrong, to let those beauties go."
In a statement to DNAinfo.com Chicago, a Park District spokeswoman explained: "We have been, and continue to plant approximately 2,000 trees a year in hopes of offsetting that loss.
"The Park District’s tree inventory is balanced — mixed forest with many species — unlike a less diverse culture of species in parkways the city is dealing with," the spokeswoman continued. "The city’s Forestry Division’s decision to treat instead of remove the ash trees has a lot to do with the fact that if they removed all of the ash trees from the parkways, it would result in streets exposed and bare. Whereas, removal of the ash trees in city parks would not leave an exposed and bare landscape since there will be many trees left behind."
That makes property owners the primary targets of Friedmann's education campaign.
A series of public meetings has been scheduled to help residents identify ash trees — one telltale sign: their bark looks like elephant skin — and to familiarize them with the signs of infestation.
"The easiest way to identify the disease is when the top of the tree starts dying, the leaves will turn yellow and die," Friedmann said.
New shoots may begin to sprout at the base of an infected tree and cracks in the bark may become visible. Tiny Emerald Ash Borer exit holes — a half-moon shape only one-eighth of an inch in size — provide a definitive diagnosis.
Save Your Ash has just begun to organize. Friedmann said he hopes to create an app that will record the GPS coordinates of an ash tree when a photo is snapped. He's also working to negotiate special rates for homeowners with certified treatment companies and to provide a list of reputable service providers on the Save Your Ash website. (Tree-age needs to be injected by a professional.)
"There's going to be a lot of hustling," Friedmann warned. "Some tree companies have [falsely] said there's a mandatory order to cut down trees. Buyer beware."
Friedmann said he's motivated by the knowledge that in 100 years, his activism will have made a difference.
"We're saving a whole species of tree from certain death," he said.
You can learn more about how to save the city's ash trees at upcoming public forums.
The 47th Ward office is sponsoring "Do You Have an Ash?" from 7-9 p.m. Thursday at Bethany UCC Church, 4250 N. Paulina St.
Representatives from the Bureau of Forestry are expected to attend a community presentation from 6:30-8:30 p.m. April 17 at the Wright College Auditorium, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.
To invite Friedmann to speak to your community group, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.