Disease claims 50 Chautauqua Park oaks
Fairfield park superintendent Pam Craff has never seen a disease threaten so many of Chautauqua Park’s oldest and most cherished trees in her more than 25 years maintaining city parks.
This summer, Craff recounted discovering leaves rapidly wilting on Chautauqua’s red and white oaks, which comprise more than 90 percent of the park’s trees. Within a few weeks, she said, the trees were dead and neighboring trees began shedding their leaves as well. Craff watched as the death toll climbed to nearly 40.
“This is something completely new,” she said. “Usually we’ll cut down three to four trees in a year’s time that have died.”
Craff sent samples of the afflicted trees to the Iowa State University plant diagnostic clinic to discover any park worker’s worst nightmare — they came back positive for oak wilt.
Oak wilt is an aggressive, terminal tree disease, first identified in 1944 in the United States. The fungal pathogen that causes the disease is spread by native beetles or by tree roots of an infected oak intertwining with a neighboring one. Trees under stress or with open wounds, often from storm damage, are more susceptible to infection.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forest Health Program Director Tivon Feeley visited with Craff Tuesday to assess the damage. He said this year’s drought put trees under unusual stress. While common in Iowa, oak wilt caused more damage to woodlands this year, concentrated in the southeast quadrant of the state and areas of Missouri bordering Iowa.
“If left to run its course, you’d lose every red oak in the park,” he said.
However, Feeley said there’s hope.
“It is containable,” he said. “You have to remove the infected trees and sever the roots below ground to kill the root graft … if contained properly the chance of losing them all is very remote.”
Feeley recommended removing 50 dead or symptomatic trees in order to save the roughly 400 other large oaks growing in the mowed areas of the park. He estimated the oldest afflicted tree, located by the first playground at the park entrance, to be 200 years old, with limbs reaching 60 feet tall and a root span at least as wide.
Removing the trees could cost the city about $10,000 Craff estimated. She said they’ll begin as soon as possible once they’ve selected an area tree service capable of the job. Removal will require cutting tops off trees first to avoid damaging neighboring playgrounds, shelters or trees.
Necessity aside, Craff is sad to see any oak trees go.
“The majority of us will not see the park full again with all these oak trees,” said Craff. “That’s the sad part for me. They’re such a majestic tree, I’ll never see the new ones grow this big.”
Craff said a number of the infected trees are on the west side of the park. While they plan to remove roughly 10 percent of the park’s large trees, Feeley said residents will notice the difference.
“It’s definitely going to be a change for a few years,” he said. For some residents, cutting down the trees means losing some of the town’s historic landmarks.
The trees had shaded such speakers as William Jennings, Booker T. Washington and Madame Schumann-Heinck at a pavilion in the park according to Susan Fulton Welty’s, “A Fair Field.”
Welty said Fairfield was nicknamed “The Forest City” in 1880 after settlers, who needed lumber, let the prairie land become overrun with trees.
The Chautauqua Association, a national education and entertainment movement prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, donated the park to the city in 1936, according to Mark Shafer, chairman of Jefferson County Historic Preservation Commission.
Shafer said since then, residents have planted memorial trees in the park, in memory of loved ones.
In fact, Feeley said he noticed many of Chautauqua’s oak trees stand in rows, indicating someone planted them.
Craff and Fairfield Park and Recreation Department Director Derik Wulfekuhle plan to replant trees to replace those lost. They’re looking into grants to help cover the cost, such as Alliant Energy’s Branching Out program. With any luck, she said they’ll replant next spring.
The Iowa DNR recommends parks have no more than 10 percent of any variety to lessen the impact of disease. Feeley and Craff discussed diversifying Chautauqua Park. Craff said they’ll likely replant some oak, as well as hickory, Kentucky coffee trees, ash and maple trees.
“I’m sure we’ll put some oak trees in, because that’s what the park is,” she said. “We’ll put fast growing trees around shelters and playgrounds.”
Currently, oak wilt has not been reported in Fairfield outside of Chautauqua Park. Craff said oaks in other city-owned parks like O.B. Nelson, Waterworks and Howard Park appear to be healthy at this time.
Jefferson County Park host Ron Meyers said the county lost a large variety of trees this year due to the drought, but has not lost more than a few oak trees. He said, like most other Iowa woodlands, the park is primarily comprised of oak and hickory trees. Park personnel don’t prune oak trees during the growing season to avoid creating an open wound, making it susceptible to oak wilt.
“Oak wilt is something we’re always worried about,” he said.
Craff said she wants to move quickly to avoid spreading to other areas of town.
First, Craff and other park staff will trench around the dead trees to avoid them spreading the fungus through the roots.
While Craff has already begun receiving calls from residents interested in buying the wood, she said it’s likely too risky. If the bark is not disposed of properly, the fungus could spread to other parts of town.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll sell it because of the danger of spreading disease,” she said, “but it’s still up in the air.”
Craff said while the town is sad to lose some of its beautiful trees, she believes a proactive attitude will limit the damage.
“We’re hoping we can get this disease stopped before it kills the other trees,” she said.