Hundred of elm trees, the trees with the large leaves that shade the District of Columbia's wide avenues and parks, are being razed and their stumps uprooted from the nearly frozen winter ground as the city begins to remove recent victims of the tree world's incurable blight - Dutch elm disease.
Along the Connecticut, Nebraska, and Nevada avenues and on some smaller streets such as Yuma Street NW, the disease has claimed 300 trees since the Department of Transportation's tree and landscaping division began its annual cleanup of afflicted trees in mid-December.
There is no known cure for Dutch elm disease, a fatal illness that is spread by the elm beetle, and which first occured in Washington in the 1940s.
It is no phenomenal amount of trees that we are cutting down this year," sid Hans Johannsen, chief of the tree and landscapping division. "There were some big elms in the northwest and people are noticing that they are gone," he said.
Johannsen explained that Dutch elm disease, which the trees contract in the spring, kills the trees during the summer as elm beetles squeeze themselves under the bark of the trees.
The dead trees are removed in the winter by Johannsen's crew.
Johannsen said he plans to continue planting elm trees in place of those that have been killed because only 1.5 per cent of the 20,000 elms in the District are affected by the disease each year.
"One and a half per cent is an insignificant figure," Johannsen said yesterday. "Elms are wonderful trees and I like to see them in the city. The younger ones don't get Dutch elm disease like the older ones."
Elms live for about 75 years in city conditions, according to Johannsen. He said that most of the trees that his crews are collecing this year average 45 to 60 years of age."
Johannsen said in some cases Northern red oaks are being used to replace the dying elms, because the oaks have wide leaves like the elm.
There are 100,000 trees in the District, including 20,000 elms, 30,000 oaks and 30,000 maples, according to Johannsen, who said the Dutch elm disease has affected all sectors of the city.
He added that the city is having difficulty getting all the elm trees that it needs to replace its dying trees because nurseries are shying away form growing elms due to the disease.
Johannsen said he expects to lose 3,000 of the city's 100,000 trees by the end of his crew's winter cleanup of diseased and dead trees.
"People and their activities are responsible for the deaths of the 3,000 tree we'll pick up," he said. "They hit them with cars, pull them out, pave too close to them, dig ditches right along them, nail signs to them . . . " he said.
The National park Service, which also reports that they have a sizeable problem with diseased Dutch elms.
"There is a problem," said James Patterson, head of the Park Service's ecological services division."And it is a problem we have been fighting for years. I don't know how many trees we've had to remove."
Al Wilkins, a horticulturist at Washington Technical Institute, and a former member of the tree and landscapping division of the Traffic Development, said scientists now are trying to develop a strain of elm that is resistant to the deisease.