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Save The Elms Program (STEP) Update

By Jason Sullivan-Halpern, Volunteer Specialist

May 7, 2017

It was a cool yet sunny morning as our team of volunteer Citizen Scientists for SacTree's Save The Elms Program (STEP) met at Curtis Park for our first Saturday morning “walkabout” with certified arborist Dan Pskowski this year. Everyone was wearing their stylish STEP t-shirts and ready to learn more about American and English elm trees, identifying the symptoms of Dutch elm disease (DED), and using Greenprint Maps to report the elm trees with symptoms of the disease. Dan has been an arborist for 30+ years and spent many of them working with the City of Sacramento’s Urban Forestry Department, SacTree’s partner on this important project, to quell the spread of this unwelcome pest across our city, so he knows more about DED than almost anyone. Given that two of our beloved, mature public elms near the Sierra 2 Center, a few blocks away, were just confirmed as having DED and removed by the City, our location and timing couldn’t have been more perfect. 

Dan got us started by telling us a little more about his personal experience with DED, how it spreads, what its symptoms are, and what’s being done around the city to stop it’s spreading. He then walked us through his process for monitoring the elms for DED step-by-step: thoroughly examining the tree from top to bottom walking around its drip line, looking for yellow wilted leaves that seem to be localized to certain branches or spreading up the base of the tree, and eliminating any other issues that may cause similar symptoms – such as squirrel damage. Squirrels apparently love the elms’ bark, and they chew around the branch until all the tree’s water-conducting vessels (which are close to the surface) are eventually eaten, causing the leaves to start turning yellow and die. You can typically follow the branch – with binoculars, if it’s too high – until you find evidence of the squirrels’ destruction. When the leaves die due to DED, you won’t see the same damage.

As we walked North through the park, we monitored all the American and English elms we saw using Greenprint Maps. The binoculars SacTree provided for our STEP Citizen Scientists this year helped a lot! Having more eyes on each of our elms helped too. Luckily, we didn’t see any symptoms of DED on any of those trees. We did, however, see lots of terrific examples of Asian elms that are DED-resistant though, like the Zelkovas available from our Sacramento Shade program, along the way.

As soon as we rounded the corner onto 5th Avenue, we saw a suspicious-looking elm. Dan and our team immediately walked over to investigate. While inspecting the tree, we found wilted leaves on one of the lower branches but not the others, and with no evident cause – a prime example of how DED looks when it first begins to spread up the tree. Our STEP Citizen Scientists took photographs of the tree’s symptoms using their mobile phones and uploaded them to Greenprint Maps right away, marking the tree as “Monitored for DED (with symptoms)” in the application. The elm’s City Tree ID Number was referenced in order to alert the City of Sacramento’s Urban Forestry Department that this particular elm might have DED and it should be tested as soon as possible. If the City confirms the tree has DED, they can either remove the infected area or remove the tree entirely to stop the disease from spreading. Early detection of the disease, if confirmed, means there’s a better chance that something can be done to save the three elms directly beside this one too.

We can’t thank Dan enough for sharing his time and expertise with all of us. Our STEP Citizen Scientists felt more confident than ever in their mission to save Sacramento’s elms from DED and are looking forward to “adopting” and monitoring their own public elms soon. There are likely more elms with DED that need to be discovered! The faster we can find them, the more we can enjoy our elms’ environmental, social, economic, and psychological benefits for years to come.

Do you want to get involved in STEP this year? Check out our next training for STEP Citizen Scientists on Saturday, May 20 at Breathe California of Sacramento’s office downtown to get started. Our next walkabout with Dan is scheduled for the morning of Saturday, June 3. We hope you can join us!