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Ashes to ashes: hundreds of South Orange trees to be cut down

Invasive emerald ash borer to kill one-eighth of the village's public canopy

One out of every eight public trees in South Orange is expected to die because of an invasive species, the village’s Shade Tree Committee said last week.

The emerald ash borer has spread through all 738 ash trees in South Orange’s public inventory, the committee said at a Nov. 8 Board of Trustees meeting. The beetle, which tunnels into and feeds on ash trees, has killed millions of trees in 25 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Public Works, which manages public trees in the village, cuts down as many as three ash trees per day, committee member Jessica Miller said.

“Emerald ash borer infestation is a 100 percent loss,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, some entire blocks were planted with ash trees and will soon be clear cut.”

Committee member David Kraiker illustrated the impact of the infestation with a picture of Coudert Place, a neighborhood shaded by ash trees.

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A tree stump on Coudert Place. The neighborhood is one of many that will see its trees removed due to the emerald ash borer infestation. (Daniel O'Connor | The Setonian)

“Coudert Place will never look the same again,” Kraiker said. “The story of Coudert Place is the story of South Orange.”

The infestation is expected to worsen the Village’s shade tree deficit, which has been growing for years. 

Miller said the number of public trees in South Orange once exceeded 8,500. Today, that total is 5,887. Due to the pandemic, the Village did not plant any public trees in 2020 while 220 trees died. 

The committee added 211 trees so far this year, outpacing this year’s loss of 162 trees.

The committee, which is currently a part of the village’s Environmental Commission, proposed that the Board grant the status of a Shade Tree Commission, a distinction that would allow the Environmental Commission to focus on other projects.

Kraiker told the trustees that the arrival of the ash borer made this the perfect moment to create a Shade Tree Commission

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 “The time was not last year. That was not the moment. The time won’t be next year. The time is now,” Kraiker said. “This is the point where we need to create a shade tree commission.”

Clyde Otis, the village’s assistant counsel said the village was investigating what would need to be done to the village code to create a commission, but that many “foundational steps” were already completed.

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The South Orange Board of Trustees met with the Shade Tree Committee on Nov. 8 to discuss a proposal to create a Shade Tree Commission.

According to Miller, the budget for tree planting would remain with the Department of Public Works, but becoming a commission would allow the group to apply for grants.

“It actually can help to save money in terms of seeking grants periodically,” she said.

The Board was largely enthusiastic about the idea. Trustee Donna Coallier expressed support for the committee’s work.

“It's no secret that I’m a tree hugger,” Coallier said. “I’m really excited about what you’re doing. I think it’s super super important.”

Trustee Bob Zuckerman called the move to a commission a “no-brainer.”

Trustee and acting president of the board Karen Hilton said the proposal would be discussed at future meetings.

“This will definitely be a topic that the trustees will be discussing at length as we move along,” Hilton said.

Daniel O'Connor can be reached at daniel.oconnor1@student.shu.edu. Find him on Twitter @itsDanOConnor.

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