The former president of the Home Builders Association of Lincoln didn’t expect to become a crusader, fighting for the ash trees surrounding his east Lincoln townhouse.

But in the past month, Allen Barber has confronted a tree-cutting crew in the common space outside his front door in Wellington Greens, an otherwise mild and manicured planned community and golf course near 70th and South streets.

“I told them, ‘You’ve got to stop. I’m going to file a lawsuit, and unless you want to be involved in it, you’d better pack up and go.’”

He's parked cars near a tree to block the crews from getting access. And he was recently shut down at a homeowners association board meeting after asking too many questions, he said.

Like: “Why are you cutting these down when there’s nothing wrong with them?”

He points to the dirt patches in the grass in front of his townhouse row, where crews had already removed a few ash trees, ground the stumps and smoothed the ground.

Then he points to the nearby ash trees that remain — all of them mature, 40 to 50 years old; all of them at least twice as tall as the townhomes below; all of them marked with a spray-painted X.

He’s not angry, he said. But he wants board members to reconsider their decision to remove all of the association’s ash trees, and he wants them to better communicate with the nearly 280 homeowners.

“The good lord has given us these beautiful trees,” he said. “To come in and take almost all of these trees out, there’s no reason to do that.”

Unless you view an insect the size of a grain of rice — and the ability to kill tens of millions of ash trees in less than two decades — as reason enough.

* * *

Nobody was surprised when a forestry crew found the city’s first evidence of emerald ash borer infestation in a tree near 37th and F streets last week.

Not the city’s community outreach forester. Not the state entomologist.

They’d been waiting for the Asian insect and its appetite for ash trees to reach Lincoln. The pest has been eating its way west since 2002, when it was first confirmed in North America.

The city started planning for the ash borer more than a decade ago, and it took a remove-and-replace approach for its roughly 14,000 trees along streets and in parks. It’s already cut down nearly 3,000 ash trees — with a goal of about 1,000 per year — replanting with a variety of species.

But last week, city outreach forester Lorri Grueber said the owners of the estimated 50,000 private trees in Lincoln should consider prolonging the lives of their trees with chemical treatments.

The life-extending measures have become more effective, and a few $200 to $300 treatments could kill all stages of the insects and help a mature ash tree live another decade, providing shade, protecting homes, preserving property values and lowering utility costs.

“To just cut it down and plant a new species may not be your best option,” she told the Journal Star.

But the board representing the Wellington Greens homeowners had already decided to remove all of development's ash trees.

“The board determined that ‘yes’ the ash trees could be treated this year and again next year, but none of the tree services that the board consulted would guarantee the trees would live any longer than three years,” it wrote in its April newsletter.

It went on. The association’s superintendent, a licensed arborist, had attended emerald ash borer seminars in Nebraska and Iowa, and had consulted with experts at the university, and concluded the treatment might extend tree life a few years, but most ash trees were ultimately doomed.

“That the disease would probably damage the trees a branch at a time and that the dead branches would be falling and could be a liability to the association.”

* * *

The trees drew Barber to Wellington Greens.

“Oh, my gosh, the canopies. That’s Mother Nature. That’s why I moved here,” he said. “It’s just so peaceful.”

Barber is the most vocal defender of the ash trees, but he’s not alone.

“My thought is if the trees are not diseased or dying anytime soon, I don’t think they should be cut down. It doesn’t make any sense,” said Penny Krieger, who’s lived in Wellington Greens for three years.

And Elizabeth Kube already misses the shade that disappeared when the trees in front of her house were removed.

“It’s just very open now,” she said. “It’s really sad to see all these big old trees go.”

But she’s also concerned the board hasn’t communicated any intent to replant. “If they are going to cut down a tree, there needs to be plan to do something else, to replace a tree.”

The association is replanting, said Jim Davidson, president of the board, though not always at a rate of one tree added for every tree removed.

And the board has been communicating with residents about the ash tree problem for years, through its newsletter and during its annual meetings, he said.

“There’s been lots of anguish from the board. None of us want to take any trees out; none of us are happy about it. But it’s a long-term approach.”

Of the community’s roughly 5,000 trees, about 50 are ash, he said. They plan to remove five or six a year for the next 10 years, he said, working in one home court at a time to save money.

They had looked into treating them, but at $200 to $300 per treatment, the board would burn through most of its $15,000 annual tree budget taking care of 1 percent of its trees.

“It comes down to economics,” Davidson said. When the trees ultimately succumb to the borer, removal costs could be four or five times higher because of citywide demand, he said.

It’s also about safety. “I don’t want my grandkids playing in one of the lawns and have one of these large branches break off and drop.”

The development is home to 277 units, Davidson said. He’s heard concerns from three residents.

But Barber believes more neighbors would be alarmed if more knew about it. He’s calling for the board to meet with all residents to give them the choice of cutting or treating the trees, and to maybe propose a special assessment to pay for their care.

In the meantime, he’s not giving up. He’s already had his own arborist conclude the surviving ash trees would be worth treating, he said, and he’s talking to an attorney.

“As a board member, you should always be looking out for the best interests of the people who live here. They think I’m trying to be ridiculous in saving those trees.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.


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