Crew rushing to remove trees before storm
The rumbling of chainsaws and hum of log grinders are echoing through Chautauqua Park this week as crews dismantle 50 of its revered old oak trees.
Brown’s Tree Services of Fairfield is racing against the impending winter storm, felling 43 of the trees by noon today, leaving behind massive stumps surrounded by a rubble of logs and brush. While Fairfield park superintendent Pam Craff is perhaps the saddest to see the trees go, she also has been the driving force behind their removal.
“It’s still pretty sad, I’m never going to see them again,” she said. “I know it had to be done.”
Craff realized her trees were in trouble when dozens began shedding their leaves and dying during the summer. But it wasn’t until she sent samples to the Iowa State University plant diagnostic clinic that she learned the severity of the problem.
The samples tested positive for oak wilt, a terminal tree disease common in Iowa and spread by native beetles or by tree roots grafting together. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the stress of this year’s drought resulted in widespread oak wilt in southeast Iowa and bordering sections of Missouri.
The disease is dreaded in Iowa because oak trees are among the most common in the state. In Chautauqua Park, they comprise more than 90 percent of the trees, said Craff.
Under direction from the DNR, she quickly began making plans to remove the infected trees to prevent the disease from spreading. DNR Forest Health Program Director Tivon Feeley told her there was no other way.
“If we didn’t stop the disease and we have another drought next summer, not many trees would be left,” she said.
Even so, Craff and city personnel said the park will look different.
“As soon as you enter the park you’ll notice a pretty drastic change,” said city administrator Kevin Flanagan during a city council meeting Monday.
In response to council member John Revolinksi’s question if the park would be “barren,” Flanagan said, “About 30 percent of the visible trees will be gone.”
Craff said only certain areas of the park will lose that percentage of trees. In a recent walk-through of the park, she counted nearly 500 oaks. She said the biggest visible change will be around the rose garden at the park’s entrance, and around the fourth shelter at the bottom of the road.
“Those are going to be pretty bare spots,” she said.
Several companies in the area including Brown’s Tree Services, Midwest Tree Service Inc. both of Fairfield and Maddy’s Tree Services of Mount Pleasant submitted bids to the city to take on the project. Craff aimed to have the job done quickly after the disease became dormant late October.
Brown’s bid was by far the lowest at $19,800, followed by Midwest at $51,750 and Maddy’s at $62,400.
While Craff believed it was unusual for such disparity among bidders, she believed co-owner Mark Brown gave a low price because of a history of doing jobs for the city. Choosing a company in town also eliminated travel costs, she said.
“He’s local and wants to help the city,” said Craff. “He’s definitely not going to make a lot of profit from this.”
The crews began with trees in the lower end of the park and have been working their way to the entrance. The workers are cutting the trees down starting at their highest most branches and working downward to avoid the timber from damaging shelters or playgrounds. They are also avoiding contact with uninfected trees, which can spread oak wilt.
“We’re being really careful not to break any limbs on the other trees,” said Brown.
“They started with the ones that are hard to get to, deep in the grass, back inside the park,” she said.
Once the trees are removed, Craff said they’ll go back and dig out each of the tree’s stumps and fill it with sand.
Crewmember Aaron Jasparing said “that’s where the real work will be.”
Craff has been driving through the park a handful of times each day to oversee the work.
“I catch myself watching the crews when I should be doing something else,” she said.
Despite flinching at the sight of the rubble scattering the park, overall she said the project is “going really well.”
While inspecting a pile of logs from a fallen tree, Craff noticed many of the tree trunks were hollow from old age or injury.
“The trees had pretty much seen their lifespan,” she said.
The heavy snow expected to descend on Fairfield Thursday could affect the tree removal timeline.
“The winter storm coming is making them a little nervous,” said Craff. “It will put a halt on them working, and afterward it could be muddy.”
Waiting for the ground to freeze after snowfall could push the crew to resume after the holidays. Even so, she said the job should be complete within the next two weeks.