Smoke, Trees, and Points in Between

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Dr. John Ball is a tree and forestry expert.

Last week’s weather reports in western South Dakota included a daily smoke report and showed where people in Wyoming, Montana, South and North Dakota might suffer ill health after days of breathing the smoke invading from fires in California.

Many experts believe the outbreak of destructive fires in recent years can be blamed, in part, on climate change, but they also agree that other contributing factors have been ineffective forest management in California (by state and federal agencies) and a lack of planning to combat these historic blazes.

Circling the News had an opportunity to hear South Dakota State University professor Dr. John Ball when he spoke at the South Dakota Master Gardeners Convention on September 24-25 in Huron, about 270 miles from my mom’s home. He is also a forestry specialist and has testified before the U.S. Congress.

“If I knew the world would end, would I still plant a tree?” Ball cited this quote that has been attributed to Martin Luther as a starting point and joked, “Yes, because it will probably not live that long anyway.”

He spoke first about tree planting errors, which include 1) not matching the tree to the site; 2) a poor-quality tree; 3) improper planting; and 4) lack of after care.

“A tree is sort of a life-time commitment,” he said, and warned that in selecting a tree there are some truisms including “Never believe garden ads or politicians.”

He explained that one of the biggest problems in planting a tree is planting it too deep. “Dig the hole three times wider, with sloped sides,” he said.

Ball also warned not to mulch around a new tree with a “volcano” shaped mound; instead, mulch should not touch the trunk. Staking a tree should last no more than a year.

Watering new trees is imperative. “Put the hose right next to the trunk,” he said. In the beginning they absolutely need water to get established – a rule of thumb is a gallon of water for every inch of diameter of the trunk of the tree.

Ball, who also works as a state Department of Agriculture Forest Health Specialist, then addressed the “ash tree problem” in Sioux Falls, which surprisingly also has implications for Pacific Palisades.

The ash trees, which he calls “zombie” trees, are being invaded by the emerald ash borer and he predicted that by 2023, people would notice the dying trees on neighborhood streets. “We’ll lose 100 percent of green ash, and 99 percent of white ash.”

A chemical treatment is being tried, and if it is done effectively, it could help stave off the problem. “We’re looking at ‘herd immunity’ with the ash trees,” Ball said, noting it could wipe out about 30 percent of the residential trees in Sioux Falls.

In a Circling the News story, Laurel Busby wrote that “The polyphagous shot hole borer, a type of ambrosia beetle, prefers the sycamore now that box alders have been eliminated, but also eats several species of native oaks and more than 48 other varieties of trees, including 20 native species. The beetle’s willingness to bore into and eventually kill numerous tree species makes it particularly damaging.”

Ball advocated having a large variety of trees in an area would enable a greater chance of overall tree survival if a tree-specific disease were to attack.

Additionally, trees have a lifespan, so planting a street with all one species could mean they would all die about the same time.

Ball also said that he has found that trees should be planted closer together because scientists have learned that “they communicate with each other through the roots.”

Kurt Allen USDA Forest Service Entomologist and Dr. John Ball discuss the Mountain Pine Beetle.

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