KALISPELL, Mont. — Autumn is coloring the valley's trees with brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. The weather will determine how long this season's gallery of leaves remains on display before winter's arrival.
So it goes, this will be the final fall for a small yet revered population of trees in Kalispell. Beloved for its lush foliage and wide canopy that drapes over neighborhood streets and homes, the American elm is rapidly dying off and could vanish all together.
The species, known for its sturdiness and toughness, has fallen victim to the highly infectious Dutch elm disease. In 1991 there were 379 mature American elms throughout the community, according to a city inventory. The average height for each tree was 80 feet and the average age was 60 years.
Today barely 100 elms remain. Another 44 have recently withered into skeletons and the Parks and Recreation department staff plans to cut them down for safety and management reasons.
"It's sad," said Mike Baker, the Parks and Recreation director. "It's a terminal problem because Dutch elm is unforgiving. Once a tree has been infected it's done."
The disease, which stems from a fungi spread by bark beetles, is one of the most destructive in North America, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It's believed to have originated in Asia and arrived in the U.S. through timber imports in the 1920s. By the 1960s the contagious disease had spread from New England across the continent.
An infested elm typically has three to four years before its branches begin falling off and it dies.
Biologists have discovered ways to combat Dutch elm, primarily through chemical injections. Some cities have successfully warded off infestations, but others have been unable to afford an adequate prevention program.
Great Falls and communities in eastern Montana have seen their American elm populations wiped out, Baker said. It hit Kalispell within the last 20 years, and Baker suspects the city's entire American elm population will be infested in the next few years.
The American elm has been a quintessential tree in the U.S. since the nation's inception. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington famously took command of the Continental Army beneath an American elm in Cambridge in 1775. The large shade tree later became a fixture in community landscapes at all corners of the country.
Only 10 percent of Kalispell's trees are American elm. But its minority status does not diminish its worth, Baker said.
"When you can see a stand of mature American elms, there's something there that has significance," he said. "It just has an awesome appearance. Nature has put everything into that tree and it shows."
Information from: Flathead Beacon, http://www.flatheadbeacon.com