Walk down a street in Kansas City, and one in 10 trees shading the sidewalk might be an ash tree. But thousands of them are dying, leaving gaps in yards and parks that are getting harder to fill.
A combination of factors, from a beetle killing ash trees to a lack of supply of many other types of trees from nurseries, has both increased the price of trees and increased the demand from cities.
Across the nation, many popular varieties, including live oaks in the South or maples in the Midwest, are hard to come by.
“We’ve inherited a fantastic urban forest in Kansas City, but it’s aging and declining and we need to replace trees,” said Kevin Lapointe, a forester for Kansas City. His department removes and replaces dying trees, and he said that while so far it’s been able to keep up with demand, a tightening market may make it harder to plant the right quantities and varieties of trees in the future.
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During the Great Recession, hundreds of nurseries went out of business, and those remaining cut back on their production of plants and trees, said Dennis Patton, a horticulture agent for the Johnson County Extension of Kansas State University. Thousands of trees that couldn’t be sold were bulldozed and burned.
Most supply-and-demand problems can be resolved by increasing production. But because it takes years for a sapling to mature, it may take years for the market to correct. Right now, parks departments and nursery managers are trying to figure out how to buy and produce enough trees.
“We’re doubling our efforts to get trees, so to speak, but we know this will be a bigger and bigger issue,” said Teresa Rynard, the deputy parks director for Kansas City.
The city’s environmental plan is aiming for a 40 percent tree canopy across the city. But the price of trees has increased by about 20 percent in two years, said Rynard.
That may not affect homeowners who just want to buy one dogwood tree for their yard, but it hurts the budgets of cities, which buy trees by the hundreds. Kansas City has partnered with the Heartland Tree Alliance, a volunteer organization that plants trees, in an effort to cut costs.
A subdivision or supermarket might look for larger trees, like a white or red oak, while a homeowner might look for smaller varieties, like a Shantung maple or a crabapple. Trees ideal for the Kansas City area range from the chinkapin oak to the sycamore.
More mature trees, measured by the diameter of their trunk, are often required for large-scale landscaping and take longer to grow. Heartland Tree Alliance works with 1-inch trees, which are easier to handle and mature much faster. Still, while 1-inch trees might be smaller, they have good survival rates and high environmental benefits.
So far, the alliance has planted hundreds of trees in the city this year, but the variety they can offer has been affected by the shortage, said Sarah Crowder, program manager for the alliance. She worries that people will plant all of the same kind of tree in an effort to cut costs, which makes the urban forest susceptible to disease and invasive species.
“We just might not be able to get as good of a spread of diverse trees,” she said. “You don’t want another monoculture, like the ash trees.”
The emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that destroys ash trees, is expected to kill up to 10 percent of the tree canopy in the Kansas City, Lapointe said.
Lapointe said he expects big home-and-garden stores, like Home Depot, to be able to fill in the gaps of the shortage with minimal effect on homeowners. Even if costs go up a little bit, he said, he encourages homeowners and businesses to keep buying and planting trees.
The shortage will be felt most in the varieties available at nurseries, said Tory Schwope, founder of KAT Nurseries and Schwope Brothers Tree Farms in the Kansas City area. So far, he’s been able to meet his customers’ requests for the number of trees, but sometimes he has to substitute with types he actually has on hand.
Schwope said that while the economy has rebounded since the recession, the full effects of the tree shortage still haven’t hit his industry.
“We’ll have 10 million less trees in our urban forests in the next five years,” he said. “The industry can’t produce enough trees to keep up with normal construction right now, much less the emerald ash borer.”
The biggest crunch, he expects, will be on cities trying to replace their ash trees.
“Most supply and demand problems can fix themselves because you can just build more or produce more, but that’s what’s so unique about this problem,” Schwope said. “It takes years to grow a tree.”