Trees are beginning to show off their colorful fall finery, but unfortunately for hundreds of them, it will be their last appearance in parks and parkways in Hammond and other communities in Lake and Porter counties.

Leaves actually already have left many of these trees, as they succumbed to the larvae of emerald ash borers that have decimated trees through much of Northwest Indiana and the nation.

Some 50 years after The Beatles invaded America, another set of invaders are leaving their mark on the U.S. This time the tune the beetles are singing could be titled, "I Want to Eat Your Land," and is no music to the ears of tree lovers.

Hundreds of ash trees throughout Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties have come down over the last several years, and more will come down in the coming years. And additional threats to other trees are on the horizon.

LaPorte County Parks Superintendent Jeremy Sobecki said the county has probably taken down about 40 ash trees in the parks and probably will cut down about 40 more in the next couple of years.

Sobecki and some other county park executives, however, indicated they are not feeling the financial impact as much as some of the city parks. Many of the ash trees in the county park systems may be in heavily wooded, less-traveled areas that don't pose as much of a threat to people if they were to die and, eventually, fall over.

Porter County Parks Superintendent Walter Lenckos agreed. While dozens of ash trees have been removed by the parks department, he noted many are just left to die on their own if they don't present a threat.

Unfortunately, he said, in five years people will probably find very few of the ash trees that have survived.

Lenckos said one of the more noticeable areas where trees were removed was around the Sunset Hill Farm County Park playground. In that case, the park district hired a contractor to remove the infested trees. Lenckos noted that taking down a big tree can tie up a few staff members for two to three days.

In Lake County, people visiting Wood's Historic Grist Mill at Deep River County Park probably have noticed the absence of ash trees by the gazebo, according to Jim Basala, Lake County Parks chief executive officer. He also mentioned the Turkey Creek Golf Course in Merrillville as another area where there is a noticeable absence of these trees now.

Basala said the park district planted a lot of the ash trees around the park system years ago. They grew fast, he said, and they filled out really well and were a favorite of landscapers. He estimates in the last few years the park district has removed more than 500 of them because of the emerald ash borer infestation. More may need to come down, although he hopes the district has gotten down most of the ones that needed to be removed.

More than 1,000 coming down in Hammond

Hammond Parks and Recreation Administrator Mark Heintz estimates some 1,500 ash trees will have to be removed from city parks and other public areas because of the invasive bug over the next three to five years.

Heintz is proposing to set aside an extra $115,000 in the coming year's budget for continual removal of trees for safety reasons. The actual cost for all the tree removal could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, however, with some trees costing in the neighborhood of $1,000 to remove. 

In Harrison Park alone, Heintz said 127 trees "need to come down." He said he is hoping to remove these trees in the coming year.

Robin Usborne, a communications manager with Michigan State University's Department of Entomology, said while the beetle, native to Asia, was first discovered in the U.S. in the Detroit, Michigan, area, in 2002 it later was determined the infestation of the beetle larvae had been killing trees long before that date.

According to Usborne, "it has been determined that the first ash tree to die from EAB was in the Garden City/Westland area in Michigan in the early 1990s. The source of the infestation is still considered to be packing materials (such as pallets) that came to the Detroit area via air and/or ships sometime in the early 1990s/late 1980s."

Hammond's Pulaski Park already has had many of its trees removed, but other parks, including Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Riverside Park, also will have many of their trees removed by either contractors or city crews. Heintz said the removal takes place when the ground is dry or frozen in the winter to prevent damage from equipment going onto the grounds.

Heintz said the city will first remove trees that are "100 percent dead" and pose the greatest danger. 

Planting replacement trees

Heintz said the city is using grant money to help get replacement trees, although they are much smaller than the trees being replaced.

The city is planting trees that are about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 6 feet to 10 feet tall, in the parks, and less expensive seedlings along the Erie Lackawanna Trail. The city is able to use the money expended for the removal of the trees as the local match for the tree replacement grants.

In Gary, summer interns with the city's Green Team, urban conservation team members and U.S. Forest Service workers tagged infested trees in public areas, including the Broadway corridor, GreenLink trail, and Barnes, Gateway, Jackson and Reed parks. 

Gary spokeswoman LaLosa Burns said the city's next step is to evaluate costs associated with removing the trees and the long-term maintenance of newly installed native trees. 

Hammond's Heintz estimated that 700 trees have been planted in Hammond parks and the Erie Lackawanna Trail since he began working for the city in February 2016. The trees have been planted at Harrison, Riverside, Rich's, Martin Luther King Jr., Dowling, Turner, Peoples, Columbia and Amy parks.

Heintz said the city mainly looks to use trees that are native to the area. Some of the new trees include red maples, river birch, tulip trees, Kentucky coffee trees, bur oaks, northern red oaks, and the Princeton American elm. The latter tree has shown resistance to the Dutch elm disease, which decimated elm trees throughout the country decades ago.

Administrators at the parks say that diversity is vital when putting in trees at the parks and parkways. Just as Dutch elm disease ravaged trees along the streets of Hammond decades ago and the emerald ash borer is killing trees now, officials said other pests are likely to affect other trees in the future.

More threats lurk in the future

Already, the thousand canker fungus infestation being spread by another beetle is killing black walnut trees in neighboring Ohio on its steady march around the country.

Potentially even more devastating than the thousand canker fungus and emerald ash borer is the spread of the Asian long-horned beetle, which attacks more than a dozen trees with a preference for maple trees. The advance of the beetle into Indiana could be of special concern in LaPorte, which is know as the Maple City.

Neither thousand canker disease or the Asian long-horned beetle, known as ALB, has been found in Indiana yet, according to Megan Abraham, with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

She said trees with thousand canker disease in the Midwest have been able to survive the infestation as long as they are healthy.

"Unfortunately, ALB is another story," Abraham said. "This insect can destroy entire strands of forest if left to its own device."

Abraham said the beetle, like the emerald ash borer, can travel in firewood.

"That makes its proximity to us in southern Ohio of very high concern," she said.

"No fun," said Sobecki, of the LaPorte County parks. "It seems like you can just get caught up with one, and the next one comes at you."

According to Abraham, a federal employee has said that through fiscal year 2016, the federal government has spent $310 million battling the emerald ash borer and just less than $700 million on dealing with the Asian long-horned beetle.

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Ed has been with The Times since January 2014. He previously covered government affairs for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. Prior to Scripps, he was with the Chicago Regional Bureau of Copley News Service.