By Allene Smith, Land Steward
When I left you last, Legacy was gathering information and planning our approach to managing oak wilt, a disease that kills red oaks (See Part 1, Getting ahead of oak wilt). Here’s the progress we’ve made since then.
In keeping with the Forest Management Model for oak wilt developed by Dr. Johann Bruhn, we first cut a 5-foot-deep trench around the infected oaks. The trench separated the root systems of trees that are or may be infected with oak wilt (inside the trench) from those that are still unaffected (outside the trench). We cut the trench with a huge blade—specially designed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) for managing oak wilt—attached to an 18,000-pound Ditch Witch.
The next step is to cut down all trees in the red oak group growing within the trench line. For us, that meant 63 red and black oaks. Many of the trees appear healthy, but there is a good chance the fungus has already reached their roots so the cautious approach is to cut them down. In consolation, MDNR oak wilt expert Phillip Kurzeja offered, “If you feel like you’re cutting down a lot of trees, you’re doing it right.”
Note: It is very important to sever shared roots before removing infected trees. When an infected oak is cut down, surrounding healthy oaks who share roots with the infected tree take up the pathogen, spreading the disease faster.
At about this point we experienced a January thaw. As the January thaw bled into a balmy February, the abrupt end to winter weather meant that loggers and tree services were hesitant to take on the job. The best practice is to avoid working near oaks during warm weather when nicking a tree can spread the disease. Warmer temperatures also accelerated pressure pad development. It became clear that we did not have the time or conditions to complete the project this season.
So, we did the next best thing. We hired a local tree service to cut down the three trees killed by oak wilt last summer, each of which would produce spores this spring. Once cut, we hired a sawyer to debark the trees on-site using a portable sawmill. We covered all bark removed from those trees and any remaining unmillable wood with plastic, burying the edges to prevent curious picnic beetles from finding their way to the wood.
And we finished just in time! The wood we covered was pungent with the yeasty smell of oak wilt. We even found some pressure pads. Happily, I’ve not yet seen any sap-feeding insects flying around (and I’ve been looking).
The milled lumber is not infectious and will go toward a good use. In May, University of Michigan students in a Green Building class will use the salvaged oak lumber to construct a straw bale building at the University’s Biological Station in Pellston. Associate Professor Joe Trumpey says this will likely be the first student-built university building, and certainly the first university building of its kind, in U of M’s 200-year history. In the midst of an ecologically saddening project, this fortuitous partnership is a silver lining.
Tune in for the next installment of our oak wilt saga, in which I’ll dish about the removal of the remaining trees. In the meantime, if you have any questions about oak wilt or how Legacy is managing the disease, please get in touch. Better yet, join us for an Oak Wilt Workshop on April 28 from 2-4 pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details or to register. Thanks for reading, and remember: warm temperatures mean it’s time to stop pruning oaks!
P.S. Unexpected claims on time and financial resources are the same at a nonprofit as they are for a household: does this new wrinkle (like a leaky roof or a failing furnace) strain this year’s budget? How much do we need to budget for next year to continue addressing the problem, and what might we have to put off? While unrestricted giving to Legacy provides the most flexibility in allocating resources where they’re needed, supporters who are able to direct an additional gift to our Stewardship fund will help balance the extra demand that oak wilt remediation will continue to place on our resources over the next 12 months. Click the green Donate Today button above or call 734-302-5263 if you’d like to support this essential work. Thank you!