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As Jim Sherald drove his car each day up MacArthur Boulevard last spring, he couldn’t help but notice the number of dead and dying elms on the side of the road. A plant pathologist with the National Park Service, Sherald quickly surmised what the canopy of bare limbs and yellowing leaves portended: The dreaded Dutch elm disease had taken root in the District’s trees.

The demise of a D.C. natural treasure wouldn’t ordinarily become a federal issue. After all, the city has trashed parks and gardens all across town over the years, and no one has seemed to notice. But the scourge that Sherald spotted was a different matter. Dutch elm disease spreads like fleas, and the outbreak is threatening the elm groves on the National Mall—a resource the feds will protect at any cost.

“We at the Park Service only have 2,500 trees, and we do a very good job,” says Sherald. “The problem is, the District doesn’t.”

When Sherald completed a Park Service survey last year of the elms that shade the areas around the national monuments, he found that the number of federal trees with Dutch elm disease had doubled, from 1 to 2 percent. Since the District has no detection or removal program of its own, the bark beetles that carry the disease were obviously flitting over from municipal District elms to monumental District elms.

“We like to keep our incidence within 1 percent, but it was around 2 percent last year,” says Sherald, calling that “an acceptable level.” Yet with an incidence in the District estimated at 3.5 percent and growing, the number of diseased trees among the 100,000 elms in the city now outnumber all the healthy trees in the monumental corridor. Sherald did the math and concluded that Constitution Avenue might soon resemble MacArthur Boulevard.

Instead of waiting for the District’s somnambulant tree office to take action, Sherald decided to sponsor an elm disease abatement program himself. Warning of impending arboricide on the monumental core, Sherald last October lobbied the U.S. Forest Service for money to destroy about 600 elms in the District too far gone to be helped.

“I kind of raised the flag that the District needed help last summer, and the Forest Service responded,” he explains. The Forest Service came up with a $310,000 grant, to be used exclusively for management and disease control—in other words, removal. The District agreed to kick in $125,000 for the effort.

Sherald calls it “a tremendous amount of money, a huge initiative”—one that will be visible in just about every D.C. neighborhood come June, when five two-person crews fan out across the city for a chain-saw massacre.

Before the crews arrive, forestry experts and entomologists will have walked every street in the District in a survey to identify and mark terminal trees beyond the 600 found in last year’s survey. “It’s very important, because you have to know what the problem is before you deal with it,” says Brad Onkin, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Sherald, whose license plates read “LORAXX,” after the tree-saving Dr. Seuss character, says that killing District elms is the only sensible solution because the healthy elms would suffer far more from the bark beetle than the chain saw. The disease is irreversible. Once the beetles burrow into the wood, they don’t leave. And once they kill a tree, they move on to the next via roots. Trees within 50 feet of one another often produce roots that overlap and graft together, according to Keith Pitchford, an arboriculture consultant now preparing a proposal to preserve Dutch elms in the District.

Like all federal interventions in D.C. affairs, the elm massacre follows years of neglect by D.C. authorities. The D.C. Division of Trees and Landscape has struggled just to catch the limbs ready to fall on pedestrians and parked vehicles. The underfunded office has neither the money nor the personnel for the preventive steps required to stop Dutch elm disease. Sandra Hill, head of the tree office, says, “At this point, we feel that with the Forest Service grant, we hope to get as many trees removed as possible and therefore eradicate the disease.” When asked about other measures to protect District elms from the scourge, Hill indicated that the office currently has no such plans.

Says the Forest Service’s Onkin: “I don’t want to point any fingers at the District. They’ve had some obvious budgetary problems. The tree maintenance division didn’t have the money to keep up with the maintenance program, so the Forest Service stepped in.”

Not that the massacre was ever necessary. Very often trees can be saved through fungicide injection if they have a minor infection, localized in one limb. “So it is a combination of chemotherapy and surgery,” says Sherald. But the District never branched out into treating infected trees, and once this summer’s removal project is complete, there’s no telling whether it will embrace preventive therapy.

“At the Park Service we do that,” says Sherald. “I don’t think treatment of individual trees has ever been a major part of the District’s program. Actual treatment of an infected tree requires special resources. You need a crew to respond quickly. It’s very labor-intensive, focused on a single tree. It’s beyond what’s doable in the city.”

Which is old news to many District residents. “This one is half-diseased,” laments Larry Darby, taking a breather from planting impatiens to commiserate over the sickly, leafless old elm that used to shade half his front yard on Nebraska Avenue between Military and Reno Roads. Darby says his elm was healthy until last spring, when he first noticed it flagging. The dying elm was part of his world for 20 years, but now he wants it out.

“It’s coming right down the street,” he says of the disease. “This one died. This one’s still healthy, but the one behind it is shot,” Darby observes, waving an arm at the inexorable march of the disease down his block. “See that one across the street? Now that’s done, too.”

There is faint hope for the species, however. The National Arboretum has two disease-resistant elms that are nearly immune. “We have one here we’re naming the Jefferson Elm that has some resistance to Dutch elm,” says Sherald in reference to a historic tree that stands on the national Mall in front of the Freer Gallery. “I think we’ll have some others in a few years.”

Yet it may already be too late, sadly, for another 99,000 healthy old elms that could still be spared, unless the District goes out on a limb and commits funds for a tree therapy program of its own.CP