By Diana C. Failla

In June of 2016, the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) was found in the state of Nebraska in a South Omaha Park during an EAB Mayoral Press Conference. Could the timing have been better than to make its appearance during a press conference on EAB management planning? The beetle is estimated to kill over 80,000 Ash trees in Omaha parks, right of way and residential yards. There are an estimated 44 million Ash trees in Nebraska. The number of Ash trees in Omaha continues to climb as inventories are conducted daily by the city and recorded on GPS (Geo-mapping). It’s a bleak prognosis for the urban Ash tree canopy in the largest city in the state with a metro area population of 904,000 and enough urban sprawl to rob the natural landscape of a once referred to as a “15-minute town.”

Residents in the state and particularly Omahans who know that EAB is down the street just a tree away are reading the newspapers, googling online sources, chatting across the fence, placing calls to their local Extension office or NE Forestry Service for more information. Questions are being filtered by the hundreds. One thing for sure is that no matter how urbanite a city becomes, there are people who care greatly about the tree canopy and nature around them. Trees relieve stress and nature serves as a haven and refuge. Parents want their children off their devices and playing outdoors, walking in areas that are green and lush with living vegetation and organisms. Climbing a tree or walking through the grass in bare feet just can’t be beat. Trees provide social benefits as much as environmental benefits. They heal, lower incidences of violence, slow traffic, mark the seasons and are landmarks that give a neighborhood an identity and encourage civic pride.

In Omaha, there are over 187 neighborhood associations in the city. The associations consist of change-makers and leaders who want to maintain the authenticity and integrity of their neighborhoods. In the historic landmark districts where the tree canopy is the most dense, neighborhood residents are worried that their trees will soon be gone, and they don’t know what to do about it, and they don’t want to sit back and watch it happen.

EAB is an opportunity to engage the community on a grassroots level starting with the neighborhoods where residents live. Turning an otherwise environmental disaster into a genuine opportunity to work together can be a smart alternative to closing the barn door after the horses got out. Channeling citizen worry and misinformation into action is a key element to managing EAB and advancing a community readiness plan. Planting trees to become established before the Ash tree canopy is down is primary to sustaining a healthy urban forest.

The Urban Bird & Nature Alliance, an Omaha based non-profit whose mission it is to preserve and restore nature in an urban environment, is working relentlessly to educate and empower citizens about the tree canopy in their neighborhood and neighborhood parks. “To empower residents with accurate and updated information on EAB is to allow them to have input in the natural landscape of the city they love and choose to live in,” said Diana Failla, Executive Director of the growing organization, “Informed citizens are engaged citizens who are ready to take action as needed.”

The organization and its large volunteer base of students from the UNO Center for Sustainability, College of St. Mary’s Green Team, Creighton University, University of Nebraska Medical Center, high schools and neighborhood residents have ribbon wrapped nearly 1,800 Ash trees in the last several years in an effort to educate and raise awareness about EAB. The wrap has served as strong visual impact of what is yet to come. The wrap leads citizens to the NE forestry website where citizens can find more information.

Last June, The Urban Bird & Nature Alliance held its 5th annual Historic Garden Walk & Trolley Tree Tour which visited 400 ribbon wrapped trees in Regency neighborhood, a neighborhood which stands to lose its entire Ash tree lined street canopy to EAB. There are over 960 ash trees in the neighborhood. The Tour also showcased other historic areas of the city dense with ash trees, and visited heritage trees. Onboard the trolley were citizens as well as city council members and a state senator in an effort to educate and move to action the decision-makers who would allocate funds for the removal, disposal and replacement of the states Ash trees. In many neighborhoods residents will not be able to expend the dollars needed to remove and replace a dangerously brittle Ash tree(s) in their yards. An initiative set in place by the organization is to seek funds to assist those who would qualify for assistance.

Funding is necessary from grants and private-public sector donors in an effort to forge the way for other towns and communities across Nebraska to follow suit with similar efforts. When funding is successfully leveraged through various sources, a strategic plan is set in place for the organization to engage the community in all phases of the tree management process. “Neighbors want to have input in designing their new tree canopy as ash trees die and are taken down. Citizens want to be part of selecting the new diverse tree species to replace the shade trees. EAB affects all of us in the neighborhood and community at large,” said Michael Albanese, VP of Elmwood Park neighborhood association.

The UB&NA EAB Community Engagement Plan is a strategic and detailed comprehensive plan that collaborates with key community partners who are excited to forge ahead with a well lineated course of action. Under the proposed strategic plan, trees will be planted in large numbers to replace the Ash trees, residents will receive education on EAB, ash tree identification, diverse tree species selection (right tree, right place concept), learn how to work with city officials for approval to plant, best practices for tree planting, maintenance and monitoring, and even a component on reclaimed ash wood will be explored. The EAB mitigation plan brings residents into keen awareness of their immediate surroundings and the big picture of the city’s landscape. It connects citizens with nature and with city agencies who welcome the assistance of an engaged, well learned co-productive and collaborative public that can help advance solutions. The goal is to engage, educate, choose diverse tree species and Plant Plant Plant trees so that EAB can serve as a juncture rather than a divide. By being part of each and all EAB management phases, residents will co-create the sense of place that trees offer rather that lose it to EAB.

In 2015, a grant from The Nebraska Environmental Trust allowed funding for EAB education and tree planting at Brownell Talbot School, a local private school; a pilot project intended to move into other school districts. Youth are the future stewards of the land and should be included and involved in EAB mitigation.

For information on how to get involved or if you have questions, contact The Urban Bird & Nature Alliance at 402-651-5779 or email: TheUrbanBirdandNatureAlliance@cox.net.

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The author is a journalist. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Urban Bird & Nature Alliance, an ISA Certified Arborist and a Master Gardener. She serves as President of Midtown Neighborhood Alliance, on the board of Midtown Vision 2050, the NE Wildlife Federation board, Green Omaha Coalition, UNO Board of Directors, UNO Strategic Planning Committee, and a former Landmark Heritage Preservation Commissioner.