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A Halloween tree killer.

It has taken a year for the real impact to sink in--Great Plains towns with few live trees, no shade, nothing to break the wind or lift the spirit.

The fall of 1991 had been warm and mild in Colorado and neighboring states. But on October 27, a deadly mass of arctic air began to descend from Canada onto the high plains. Record cold temperatures were felt for days; the effects will be felt for decades.

The abrupt change in temperature and the cold's severity combined to create a double-whammy, now known as the Halloween Freeze. Already stressed from an extended drought and not yet hardened for winter, thousands and thousands of trees succumbed to the hard freeze. Especially hard-hit were fast-growing Siberian elms. Many trees were so severely damaged that although a few branches cling to life even today, there is no alternative but removing them.

Some small towns lost 70 percent of their trees, mostly Siberian elms planted 50 to 75 years ago. Farmers and ranchers lost entire windbreaks planted by their parents and grandparents.

The impact on energy use will be tremendous; trees that had helped cut cooling and heating bills are now gone. And farmers fear cropland topsoil will be lost from the windbreak-less land.

The first sign of trouble didn't appear until the spring of 1992, when many trees did not leaf out; since then, dead trees have been on everyone's mind. How people are dealing with this and their plans for the future are just now unfolding.

"Words can hardly express it, we are so upset," says Janine Bjoklun, a citizen tree-board member in Haxtun, Colorado. Haxtun residents have always been proud of their town, a lushly treed oasis in a sea of prairie. Now, with so many big old trees removed, the town looks vacant.

In Holyoke, a farming community of about 2,000 that lies 30 miles west of the Nebraska border, Mayor Frank Hubp describes how his town is helping citizens deal with the disaster. "Holyoke put out bid requests for tree removals," he says. "As a result, residents can have their dead trees removed under our contract for much less money than if homeowners contracted individually." Savings may amount to $100 to $200 per tree.

As she walks to and from work each day, Town Clerk Penny Dockins surveys the damage and watches dead trees being taken down. "I don't know which is worse to see--stumps or dead trees," she says. "All around town, all you see are stumps. We'd like to liven up our city (with trees) again. Holyoke is noted for its trees."

A community-wide effort is underway in many eastern Colorado towns like Holyoke. People are pitching in to help neighbors while the towns' employees and equipment help haul logs and dead branches to landfills.

The sheer magnitude of the problem has prompted Colorado's state forester, Jim Hubbard, to initiate a special effort to assist the towns. The State Forest Service is encouraging each town to develop its own plan to remove dead trees, properly dispose of the wood, and replace the lost trees with a variety of new ones. With a supplemental budget request to the Colorado state legislature, and anticipated support from the governor, the Service hopes to pass some money on to the towns that need it most.

One problem worrying forestry officials is public safety. If the freeze-killed trees are not removed soon, they will lose branches in the wind. With so many dead trees in every town, there's an increased chance of someone being hurt or even killed by a falling branch.

And, so many dead or dying elms mean new breeding sites for the Lesser European elm bark beetle. The tiny bark beetle, which needs dead elm trees to raise a brood, is the usual culprit for spreading Dutch elm disease (DED).

With so many new dead-tree breeding sites, entomologists fear an escalated beetle population will mean a higher incidence of DED. For years, Colorado has successfully kept the disease in check by keeping live elms trimmed of dead branches and quickly removing and disposing of dead ones. Now, the "sanitation" task is overwhelming.

It may not be the dead elms that pose the greatest risk of beetle infestation. According to Dave Leatherman of the Colorado State Forest Service, many of the Siberian elms killed outright by the freeze are already shedding their bark, rendering them unsuitable for the beetles. "However, the elms that lived, but now are dying, represent the greatest threat for a bigger elm bark beetle population and more Dutch elm disease," he says. "That's because bark on dying trees is still tightly attached and makes excellent brood wood."

It appears the situation will only get worse before it gets better. Trees that initially leafed out and seemed to have survived the freeze were showing shriveled leaves and more dead branches by midsummer. And the problem is not limited to eastern Colorado. The Halloween freeze swept across western Nebraska and Kansas and down into Oklahoma, killing trees everywhere in its path.

Nebraska newspapers report 250,000 trees killed on public lands, and another 250,000 on private property, most of it in the panhandle. Oklahoma was also hard-hit. "Our worst week of winter came the first week of November," says Ken Crawford, director of Oklahoma's Climate Survey.

At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, data for the Halloween freeze period is being analyzed by State Climatologist Dr. Thomas B. McKee and Assistant State Climatologist Nolan Doesken. Their records show a 43-degree difference between the average high on October 30 in Akron, Colorado, 100 miles northeast of Denver, and the actual temperature there that day--12 degrees F.

In Lamar, Colorado, 170 miles southeast of Denver, the temperature on the night of November 2 fell from the day's high of 28 degrees F. to -16 F., well below the all-time low for that date. Not since 1969 had Colorado experienced such a devastating temperature swing.

Coincidentally, the '69 freeze was a precursor to Colorado's decade-long 1970s battle to save its American elms from DED. Fortunately, as with the '91 freeze, American elms and most other species survived that cold snap. The reason so many did not survive this time is because people planted so many of the species that has been affected the most--the Siberian elm.

The Halloween Freeze's long-term effects on forestry are still unknown, but the affected areas have learned a costly, albeit basic, lesson: Don't concentrate so heavily on a single species. Replacements will include a variety of species well-suited to the harsh prairie environment.

That diversity can help protect a community from losing all its trees to a natural event like a freeze. Good coordination of reforestation work now can insure that future generations living on the prairie will once again enjoy the benefits of a treed environment.

Ron Gosnell is area forester for the Colorado State Forest Service in Boulder.


Most people conjure up the Rocky Mountains when they think of Colorado, but from the back of a tiny Cessna flying east from Denver, a good one-half to two-thirds of the Rocky Mountain state is as flat as the plains of the Midwest. This is the area of Colorado that was devastated by the Halloween Freeze of 1991, as were parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana, and North and South Dakota. Flying at 1,000 feet with forester/pilot Ron Gosnell at the helm, I saw small town after small town that had lost the majority of its mature tree cover.

We landed in the town of Akron, about 80 miles east of Denver. Akron lost one mature Siberian elm for every resident; approximately 1,800. On the short drive to the town center, we saw evidence of the freeze's long-term effects. A windstorm the night before had toppled a once-stately elm, clobbering a cottage. Many houses had five, six, or seven dead elms around them.

According to Stuart Travis, town-council member and tree-board chair, and Rob Hicks, director of public works, Akron's citizenry--like that of other similarly affected towns--consists overwhelmingly of retired senior citizens who have moved in from the farms and ranches. Most of them are unable to cut down the dead elms themselves and can't afford to hire a tree-care service. To make matters worse, Akron has no licensed, certified arboricultural company.

Global ReLeaf, American Forests' international tree-planting and care campaign, has raised money for tree planting, especially in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Hugo, the Oakland Hills fires, and the tornado that killed 1,200 trees in the Colorado Plains town of Limon. But raising the money it will take to remove thousands of hazardous elms is a real challenge.

Once they're down, the elms must be disposed of, and that poses another problem. As firewood they'd provide a home for the unwelcome elm bark beetles that contribute to Dutch elm disease, thereby endangering the American elms that survived the freeze. Burning them in the landfills is not only costly but dangerous in the windy plains.

There is one bright side to the freeze: the opportunity to rebuild these urban forests with the diversity of trees needed to ensure their long-term health. But the road to those future forests will undoubtedly be as long and as hard as the trail that brought settlers to these towns a century ago.


In response to the Halloween Freeze of 1991, the Colorado State Forest Service is trying to make people aware of the variety of trees that will grow on America's Great Plains. Many people will be buying and planting trees to replace those lost in the freeze. It's not always a good idea to just watch what the neighbors are planting and then do the same.

The trees listed below are from Urban and Community Forestry--A Guide for the Interior Western United States, published by the USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Region. This list is for Colorado; the Guide contains lists for other states as well. You can get other recommendations from your state or city forester, a tree nursery, or a community tree board.

There are even lists available of trees that carry out a specific purpose such as field windbreaks and living snow fences.

A favorite tree of mine that does well in Colorado is the black walnut (Juglans nigra). It does quite well below the 6,000-foot elevation on better-quality soils. Walnut tends to leaf out late in the spring but shed its leaves early in the fall. Its short growing period while it still has leaves gives it natural protection from late-spring or early fall freezes and wet, heavy, branch-breaking snows.

Squirrels love walnuts, and they often forget where they stashed nuts in the fall. Consequently, walnut-tree owners are rewarded with lots of volunteer trees sprouting in flower beds or near the woodpile, ready to be transplanted to the right place. Look closely! Walnut seedlings are a deep red-green color, easily mistaken for weeds.

Winter top-kill is a problem for young trees in cold, dry prairie climates. Walnut saplings, however, will root-sprout for several years following top die-back. If left for four or more years, a deep tap root makes them difficult to transplant.

I have a couple other favorites that seldom appear on approved lists but do OK here in Colorado. Thanks to a willingness on someone's part to give them a try, 20 beautiful sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) grow on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Like sweetgums, red oak (Quercus rubra) will add a rich red glow to Colorado's autumn gold.

People have a tremendous number of options to choose from when replacing trees lost in the Halloween Freeze--those listed below are a good start. Deliberately planting a variety makes good sense, and it adds spice to the urban forest.


Large (40 feet tall) Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) Autumn purple (Fraxinus americana 'Autumn Purple') Green ash (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) Narrowleaf cottonwood (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Populus angustifolia) Lodgepole pine (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Pinus contorta) Medium (25 to 40 feet) Norway maple (Acer platanoides) Littleaf linden (Tilia cordata) Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) Quaking aspen (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Populus tremuloides) Shubert chokeberry (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Prunusmelanocarpa 'Shubert') Mayday tree (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Prunus melanocarpapadus) Small (25 feet) Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum) Bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) Amur maple (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Acer ginnala) River birch (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Betula occidentalis) Ussarian pear (Elevations over 6,000 feet) (Prunus ussuriensis)


Eastern red maple (Acer rubrum) European hornbean (Carpinus betulus) Goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) Turkish hazel (Corylus colurna)


Honey locust (Gleditsia sp.) Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) Cutleaf weeping birch (Betula pendula 'Dalecarlica') Russian olive Elaeagnus angustifolia Silver elm (Ulmus pumila)
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Title Annotation:Urban Forests; includes related articles on Akron, CO and suggested trees for planting; arctic air that caused killed trees in the Great Plains towns
Author:Gosnell, Ron
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Woodpecker wars.
Next Article:The Alex Haley silver maple.

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