Nebraska is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions with its trees, experts and state, city and county officials told the legislature's Appropriations Committee on Friday.

Disease and insect infestations are killing state trees at an alarming rate, and wooded areas already are plagued by dead trees through natural causes and disasters, such as flooding, tornadoes and wildfires, said Mary Baker, resiliency strategist for JEO Consulting Group in Wahoo, who also has served as the state's hazard mitigation officer for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

Lately, she said, she has been increasingly alarmed at the number of dead trees she's seen in forests, wind breaks, along highways, on ranches and farms.

"I think, really, we need to find ways to remove these clusters of dead trees and the dying stock before they become just fuel for the next wildfire season," she said.

Or injure people or property.

But it needs funding, she said.

In the state, 7% of land is covered with trees, about 3.5 million acres with about 850 million live trees, 85% on private land, said State Forester John Erixson.

The insidious emerald ash borer is already in seven of 93 Nebraska counties and spreading, Baker said. A ring of nine counties in the east should be as proactive as possible in removing ash trees in their communities and their countryside.

"Unfortunately, this task is overwhelming," she said.

It's costing millions of dollars to remove the trees.

The emerald ash borer, an exotic beetle whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients, and eventually killing it, was discovered in Nebraska in June 2016, in an infested tree in Douglas County.

The Appropriations Committee held an interim study (LR211) hearing Friday to find out the need for potential funding for the Nebraska Tree Recovery Grant Program.

The ash borer was first detected in Lincoln in 2018, although it may have been in city trees at least a couple of years before that, said Parks and Recreation Department Director Lynn Johnson in a letter he sent to the committee. More than 12% of Lincoln's trees are ash, about 12,000 are along city streets and 2,000 in parks. Including ash trees on private land, there's probably 56,000 to 70,000 across the city, he said.

The past three fiscal years, the city has invested about $1 million annually for preventive removal and replacement of ash trees with diverse species, he said. But that won't be enough.

The cost of tree removal can range from $21 for small trees to more than $2,200 for large ones.

In Lincoln, Sen. Suzanne Geist's District 25 has the most public ash street trees with 2,406. Sen. Matt Hansen's District 26 has the second-most with 1,870, and Sen. Anna Wishart's District 27 has 1,781.

Lancaster County Commissioner Sean Flowerday said that following this year's historic bomb cyclone, more than 22 bridges closed in the county, and more than 50 remain on the critical or watch list for scour, removal of sediment such as sand and gravel from around bridge abutments or piers.

That resulted in a 2019-20 budget allocation of an additional $3 million by the county for bridge and road repair, which is only half of what is needed, Flowerday said.

In tight budget times, that means the removal, disposal and replanting of trees damaged by storms and infestations falls down the priority list, he said.

"Nebraskans suffer when we do not address tree mortality sufficiently," he said. "I urge you on behalf of Nebraska taxpayers to find a way to leverage additional economic resources, like through federal assistance, for the tree recovery program."

It will cost communities $270 million to remove, dispose of and replant 256,000 public ash trees in every community across the state, Erixson said. Private trees would cost homeowners an additional $686 million. Beyond communities, an additional 43 million ash trees are in forests.

Those community trees each provide about $98 per year in environmental benefits by removing air pollution, storing carbon, sequestering new carbon, reducing energy consumption and providing oxygen, Erixson said.

"In order for us to capture this value, we must have a sustainable forest in our communities and our rural settings," he said.

With climate change, pests are expected to have greater survival and more generations, Jeff Bradshaw, research and extension entomologist in Scottsbluff, told the committee. Nebraska is facing the potential loss of $97 million per year in benefits from ash trees, and $7 million to $17.5 million in pine saw log value to landowners because of the ash borer and mountain pine beetle.

Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, sponsored the interim study, and said he intended to pursue an innovative solution to the funding problem using unused funds under the Federal Emergency Management Agency resilience administration risk and mitigation program. He also will look at other resources for the tree recovery program, he said.

That may come in the next year or may have to wait until the next two-year budget, Stinner said.

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News Editor

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram, Schuyler Sun and The Banner-Press newspapers. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2015.

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