At odds on care of Heritage Elms

A press release sent out by the city on Wednesday regarding the loss of the Heritage Elms on Indian Hill is causing a stir among the city’s tree advocates.

The release—sent by Public Information Officer Bevin Handel and signed by Interim Community Services Director Dave Roger—focuses on the replacement of 11 city trees that were taken out due to a number of factors, including age and effects from the drought. Mr. Roger is a consulting urban forester from Inland Urban Forest Group, who the city named interim community services director after the departure of Pat Malloy last month.

“Although the aging process and disease affecting the American elms cannot be prevented or treated, the city has recently tackled issues within its control to extend the life of these trees,” the release stated, noting that after an extensive public education program to help maintain the trees, the trees’ health continued to decline.

“The watering outreach program included public education and direct resident contacts via door hangers and letters, as well as a volunteer canvassing program targeting properties with severely drought-stressed trees,” the release said.

Mark von Wodtke, chairman of Sustainable Claremont’s Tree Action Group, tsaid the city needs to do better to save its trees.

“Bevin Handel put a pretty good spin on this, as we pay information officers to do,” Mr. von Wodtke said. “We are now supposed to be placated and continue along as complacent Claremont. It is difficult for me to be complacent about the loss of these Heritage Elms.”


Last year, the city required many residents to regularly water distressed city trees on their properties. Water hoses or water bags paid for by the city were provided by volunteers, along with instructions on how frequently to water.

In September 2015, Interim Community Services Director Pat Malloy said that 489 of the 688 trees deemed stressed the year before had recovered because of initiating use of the water bags. At that time, 101 city trees were deemed critical and 533 were identified as severe. Mr. Malloy said in September 2015 that more would be done and that the city would ask the council to do a park tree assessment to identify and make action plans for the city-owned drought-stressed trees.

“They’ve done the assessment, but they haven’t really followed through to make it happen,”?Mr. von Wodtke said. “I don’t see the follow through, but Mr. Roger has been trying to make it happen the last few days.”

Mr. von Wodtke went on to say that Mr. Roger “fully recognizes what needs to be done,” but that the city doesn’t have the staff or the budget to do it.

“I think that needs to change,” he said.

In October 2015, the Claremont City Council approved an ordinance allowing the city arborist to issue citations (with fines up to $500 a day) to residents who did not follow the watering schedule handed down from city staff.

The city says this effort to save city trees on homeowners’ properties was successful. However, the requirements for the city to water trees on public property was not clearly outlined through the program.

Mr. Roger said the city elms were regularly watered last summer, but he could not provide the specific schedule.

“Two years ago, when the city put a new sidewalk down, the irrigation was redirected away from the trees. Last summer, the city put in some soaker hoses when it became evident the drought was continuing,” Mr. Roger said, adding that the city stopped using watering systems when cooler weather came in.

To its credit, the city used a water truck and tree bags to sustain newly-planted trees in the commercial Village area, particularly along Yale Avenue.

Mr. Roger claims that it wasn’t lack of watering but a debilitating tree bacteria, xylella or X. fastidiosa, that was ultimately to blame for the elms’ poor health.

“The issue with the trees is not water: they were diseased with xylella,” Mr. Roger said. “They had decay in them and were old and were a hazard to the people in the park. The issue wasn’t that the trees weren’t watered.”

According to a study by the American Phytopathological Society, “regular watering can be used to sustain plants infected by X. fastidiosa, particularly during periods of water stress.”

Further, the Journal of Experimental Botany published a study that showed water stress enhanced leaf scorch symptom severity and progression in a variety of ivy and creeping plants that were infected by X. fastidiosa.

Fred Roth, an arborist and emeritus professor at Cal Poly Pomona, said xylella’s destructive path varies for different trees.

“It’s kind of a sly little pathogen,” Mr. Roth said. “In some it kills rather quickly—there’s a broad range. It’s relatively slow to damage American elms from everything we know. But probably it’s a factor over that time.”

Mr. Roth first diagnosed the city’s elm trees along Indian Hill with xylella about 20 years ago. He cautioned that regular watering of an affected elm tree is not a certain tactic to keep it alive.

“The bacterium proliferates. It grows in the vascular system of the tree and it literally plugs it up,” Mr. Roth said. “My first thought is if that vascular system isn’t working, then keeping the tree hydrated doesn’t make a difference. On the other hand, is it possible? We can’t eliminate the possibility that it could help the tree.”

The vascular system brings water and nutrients to the above-ground portion of the tree from the roots. Mr. Roth noted that the elm trees along Indian Hill had been in decline ever since he arrived in town in 1977, and he diagnosed them with xylella about 10 years later.

The city recognized the 11 trees would to eventually be removed, and began to grow replacement saplings at a local nursery to be planted as soon as the original trees were taken out, according to the city press release.

In all, 43 trees along Indian Hill Boulevard are in a declining state, the release stated. City staff will develop preservation plans “in the coming months,” including select trimming and a long term plan to remove and replant trees “for future generations.”

This information did not sit well with some members of the community, including Claremont Heritage Director David Shearer, who noted that his group has been fighting for the trees for years.

“It paints a picture that none of this was the city’s fault,” Mr. Shearer said via email. “I am sorry to say that Claremont Heritage has been working on the issue of trying to save our trees for over three years.”

Mr. Shearer said Claremont Heritage has been working to bring attention to the issue, reaching out at tree committee and city council meetings and organizing a “tree coalition” of concerned citizens to tackle the issue of the dying elms.

“There are several reasons why ours are now having to be removed,” Mr. Shearer said. “It goes back to the beginning of the drought and was exacerbated by the massive root-trimming that took place when the city did the Indian Hill sidewalk project a couple of years ago. They literally cut out a tremendous percentage of the roots just to move the sidewalks in Memorial Park. We wrote a letter from an expert on our board at that time to raise the alarm.”

Mr. von Wodtke claimed each tree was valued at around $80,000, a number based on the settlement from an elm on Tenth Street that was damaged when a stoplight was installed.

He called on the city to update the Tree Inventory and develop an urban forest master plan to properly deal with the “changing climate.” The Tree Action Group, Mr. von Wodtke said, has made the Tree Inventory and the urban forest master plan a top priority.

“The lesson to be learned from the unfortunate loss of the Heritage trees is that the city of Claremont needs not to placate the community, but instead provide a better team and budget to protect our trees, which are a valuable community asset,” Mr. von Wodtke said.

—Matthew Bramlett


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