Warning. If you think potholes, sinkholes and worn pavement are worrisome enough, I’m about to pile on another road hazard: Dead ash trees.
The exotic beetle called the emerald ash borer has killed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan. Many of them are long dead along busy roadways, ready to topple down on motorists.
Ron Goodger, a retired electrical engineer who lives in Cass County near Cassopolis, began tracking deaths by ash trees after his wife totaled her 2007 Dodge Caravan in March when she hit a downed ash.
Debbie Goodger, the couple’s grandson and his girlfriend were returning home from a robotics competition in St. Joseph. As she crested a hill, she couldn’t stop in time to avoid a downed tree that had fallen moments earlier across Dailey Road, a well-traveled route to Southwestern Michigan College, a community college in Dowagiac.
Cass County's Ron Goodger is tracking motorist deaths involving fallen dead ash trees after his wife hit a tree blocking a road in March 2018. (Photo: Courtesy)
The collision broke the tree in two. The Caravan, with no steering left, swerved off the road and came to a rest. The car was totaled, but the passengers were uninjured.
Goodger shudders to think what would have happened if the tree hadn't broken.
It got him wondering.
How many people are hurt or killed by trees? Is the emerald ash borer epidemic, which began in North America in southeast Michigan nearly three decades ago, making it worse? Whose responsibility is it to take down dead trees that threaten roadways?
He’s tracked 14 deaths involving roads and ash trees over the past two years across the country.
He also started cataloging potentially hazardous dead ash trees along roads using Google Earth, identifying as many as 800 in Cass County alone. He is worried, and he’s bringing up the issue to anyone who will listen. He wants other volunteers to join him by tracking trees in their counties.
“Awareness needs to be raised,” Goodger said. “We will have more deaths on the road because of dead ash trees falling on the cars. You can bet on it, because there’s so many out there.”
At the spot of his wife’s accident, there were other dead ash trees along the stretch of road, which have since been removed by the homeowner.
“They have done what they should have done, but they should have done it long ago,” he said.
Goodger reached out to me because his research brought up a column I wrote last year on Susan Brown, a Bath Township resident who was seriously injured when a dead tree fell on her car during a storm four years ago.
Brown wanted the Clinton County Road Commission to be more proactive in removing dead trees.
A 16-year-old Lansing youth died last year in Cass County from a falling tree and just last month a 32-year-old old man from Ionia County died in DeWitt Township from a falling tree, though those trees weren’t identified as ash.
Where the responsibility falls for the dead trees near roadways isn’t black and white. While trees are primarily the responsibility of land owners, public road agencies – such as county road commissions and municipal road crews -- are tasked with keeping roadways clear of hazards such as branches overhanging the road.
Denise Donohue, executive director of the County Road Association of Michigan, said her group, which represents road commissions and authorities, is discussing an education plan to make more homeowners aware that dead trees, even in right of ways are their responsibility.
“Trees are the homeowner’s responsibility, whether it’s ash or whatever,” she said. “In the situation where a tree falls across the road and or into the road, that’s our problem. “
John Bedford, pest response program specialist with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, called it “a huge and widespread problem.”
“The finances are not there to support a robust tree removal program,” he said.
He said it’s falling on the shoulders of private property owners, utility companies and municipalities and other government agencies when they own the land or are in charge of the trees.
Both Bedford and Deb McCullough, Michigan State University professor of forest entomology, urged that ash trees be removed by professionals.
That’s because the trees are dried out, strangled by the emerald ash borer's damage, and tend to decay faster than other types of trees.
Bedford said it’s better to take them down as soon as possible as “the less dead the tree is the cheaper it is.”
“If you wait until it’s stone dead, the removal cost can double or triple,” he said.
McCullough, an emerald ash borer researcher, said Michigan has stopped counting the dead ash but Michigan still has live ash trees.
She said ash trees were popular landscaping trees for decades and especially thrived in sunny spots.
“That means we tend to have a lot of ash trees along roads because that’s where they get a lot of sun,” she said. “We have a lot of ash. We have a lot of ash along roads, and, now, because we have the longest history of ash borer, we have a lot of dead ash trees.”
The borer was first discovered in North America in Southeast Michigan in 2002, though it likely arrived years earlier, and has spread as far as Colorado and New Hampshire.
In October, the state essentially waved a white flag in the battle against the emerald ash borer when it lifted a 16-year ban on transporting campfire wood to the Upper Peninsula.
Goodger, who designed wiring for hybrid electric vehicles for International Truck during his career, said his is a lonely quest.
“I’ve done a lot of research on the internet. I’m not finding anyone else focusing their attention like this,” he said.
“If all this work that I’m doing saves just one life, then it’s all worth it."
If you’d like to join Goodger in tracking dead ash trees along roads in your area, he can be reached at LRGoodger@gmail.com.
His website is sites.google.com/site/deadashtreeskillingpeople/
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