- Historic Sites
Elm Street Blues
A HERITAGE PRESERVED Since 1930, more than half of America’s splendid elm trees have succumbed to disease. But science is now fighting back and gaining ground.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
New York State, however, disagreed. With almost twenty years’ experience with the disease, New York environmental experts felt that DDT killed birds but had little impact on the destructive beeties carrying the fungus. There was, in fact, one New York city that never used DDT-Syracuse. Dr. Howard C. Miller, emeritus professor of forest entomology at the state forestry college in Syracuse, turned that city into his laboratory. Syracuse was losing close to a thousand trees a year, and Miller slowed the rate of loss to less than one percent, without DDT. Miller was a pioneer in the use of complete sanitation—the quick removal and destruction of all dead or dying elm trees, the breeding place of the beetle. Rachel Carson cited the scientist’s work in Silent Spring , published in 1962.
While DDT was new to many in the 1950s, Miller was already well acquainted with the pesticide by then. In 1946 he had worked with the forest service in the Adirondacks. They were then spraying two to five pounds of DDT an acre to control spruce budworm. The scientists had suspected it was harmful and had began to study its effects by forcefeeding birds the DDT-sprayed larvae of the budworm.
Based on that experience and other studies, Miller and his colleagues knew that DDT was not controlling Dutch elm disease. There was another way, a solution so straightforward that it is what scientists praise as “elegant”: control the beetle and you control the spread of the fungus it carries. So remove the breeding ground. And there was a large place, ignored in this country, that had set the precedent for doing this: Holland. Today, in the country that lent its name to the disease, the Dutch still retain most of their old elms. They did it by sanitation directed on a national level. In 1958 Miller decided to use sanitation in Syracuse, the fifth largest city in New York State, which had four hundred miles of streets planted with elms dating from the Civil War.
It was a demonstrably successful experiment. But towns and cities were not persistent enough in applying the sanitation method. A few towns in the Hudson River valley tried the program, but most continued spraying DDT and, in a lastditch effort, tried to reformulate the chemical or to apply it differently. Complete sanitation is an expensive program and politically unattractive. In a successful program, nothing appears to be happening.
In Syracuse, Miller saw his work undone. The city fathers faltered on continuing the sanitation program, and by the end of the sixties the city had lost almost all its elms. At one time Syracuse had eighteen thousand trees to remove. Limbs were falling on cars. “The thing just blew up,” Miller says, referring to the numbers of disease-spreading beetles. It looked as if a bomb had hit, removing all greenery and shade. “We lost a city of trees,” Miller says, “these big cathedral elms.” Just to clean up the trees and stumps, the mayor had to use extensive federal funds. In the end the crash program to remove the elms was much more costly than steady sanitation would have been.
By 1975 the immigrant that had arrived in New York only forty-five years earlier reached California.
Had Miller’s program been followed, the trees would have lived out their natural life-span, about seventy-five more years—plenty of time for younger trees to take their place. Against Dutch elm disease, DDT proved ineffective. It only served to give people the illusion they were doing something. “Most of the places you can find elms, they survived by use of a steady sanitation effort,” Lanier said.
By 1975 the immigrant that had arrived in New York only forty-five years earlier reached California. More than half of all the elms in the country were lost. Many cities lost their trees at the same time they were being ravaged by urban renewal, interstate highways, and suburban flight. The self-image of these cities changed, as Shady Avenue and Elm Street were now again as barren as when the settlers first cleared the land. In Syracuse the loss of elms led to the loss of most of the city’s twenty-two thousand maples, because with the elms gone, the streets heated up about fifteen to twenty degrees. The orioles that had nested in the elms also disappeared.
Many discouraged experts were writing the obituary of the American elm by the late 1960s. But there were a few elms in each community that had managed to survive and a few communities in which virtually all the trees had survived: Shaker Heights, Ohio; Fertile, Minnesota; Blue Hill, Maine; several North Shore suburbs of Chicago; and one of the country’s most elm-covered cities, Washington, D.C. Several other cities are now actively fighting for their trees: Grosse Pointe, Michigan; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; and Bangor, Maine. The news from these cities today is that the American elm is not doomed and is in fact makine a comeback.