April 22, 2015

Princeton’s Ash Trees Are Among New Arborist’s Concerns

TRACKING OUR TREES: Having served as a tree climber and worked as assistant director of horticulture at New York’s Central Park, Princeton’s new arborist Lorraine Konopka knows her way around an urban landscape.

TRACKING OUR TREES: Having served as a tree climber and worked as assistant director of horticulture at New York’s Central Park, Princeton’s new arborist Lorraine Konopka knows her way around an urban landscape.

Since taking over from Greg O’Neil as Princeton’s arborist this past February, Lorraine Konopka has been bracing herself for the arrival of tiny visitors that could alter the town’s landscape. They are emerald ash borers, and they are a major threat.

“We’re told that it’s not a matter of if. It’s when,” said Ms. Konopka, who joined Princeton’s staff after nine years as Hanover Township’s arborist and two previous decades working for Manhattan’s Central Park Conservancy. The troublesome insects have yet to be detected in the branches of Princeton’s ash trees — which number somewhere around 1,700 — but they have been found in nearby Bridgewater and across the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The town is conducting tests to try and monitor a possible invasion.

Dealing with the ash trees is only one aspect of Ms. Konopka’s new position. She commutes from Morris County, where she lives with her family. Ms. Konopka’s husband is the Central Park Conservancy’s Director of Mechanical Services. Their children are 17 and 21.

“Princeton is a beautiful town,” she said. “There is so much to see and do. I love history, and of course there are so many beautiful trees. There is a lot of work to be done, but I have a great crew and everyone on the staff has been so supportive.”

Growing up on Long Island, Ms. Konopka always knew she wanted to work outdoors. “My dream as a child was to go out west and be a forest ranger,” she says. “As it turned out, I take care of the urban forest. It just kind of happened that way.”

After graduating from college, Ms. Konopka worked for a private tree company as a tree climber. “You wear a saddle and rope, you prune off dead branches, and take down trees that need to come down,” she said. Today, she is a tree expert certified by the New York and New Jersey Departments of Environmental Protection, and an arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture.

Ms. Konopka was hired in the early 1980‘s by the then-fledgling Central Park Conservancy to help refurbish its trees. The park was not in good shape at the time. “There was graffiti everywhere, there was dead wood everywhere. It was not a place that people wanted to go or where they felt safe,” she recalled. “You look at those old pictures and you can’t believe it looked that bad. Because now, it’s beautiful and everyone wants to go there.”

The Conservancy was formed in 1980 with a mission of rescuing the park. The public/private partnership became a historic management agreement between the Conservancy and the City of New York in 1998, and the nonprofit organization today raises 75 percent of the park’s annual budget. Through public education programs and special signage throughout the park, the Conservancy has turned it into a major destination. But that creates another challenge. “People love the park, but they can consume it to death,” Ms. Konopka said. “So there is this need for constant maintenance.”

After the Conservancy completed its first big project, which was renovating the expanse known as the Sheep Meadow, its administrators realized they would need to raise more money to keep it healthy. “So they started hiring young 20-somethings and I was one of them,” Ms. Konopka said. “I did just about everything there. I ran the tree crew. I worked my way up to assistant horticulturist. I stayed for 20 years.”

It was 9/11 that made Ms. Konopka decide to move on. “I was a commuter, and I was in Central Park that day and there were F-16’s flying overhead. My kids were seven and four, at home. I couldn’t get there,” she says. “I had been thinking that the juggle was getting tougher, but that was the catalyst. So I came west of the Hudson and got a job working with a tree company, then some work for a consultant and some nursery work, before I heard about the job in Hanover.”

Here in Princeton, where she applied for the arborist job after her hours in Hanover started to be cut back, she is especially grateful to have the support of the town’s Department of Public Works. “The most important thing for me, being a tree expert, is safety,” she said. “We’re working hard to try and take care of the problems you have with big, old trees with dead wood or storm damage sustained after a few years of very rough weather.”

As for those emerald ash borers, she says, “Insect issues are always out there. These are things that happen in our natural world, but this is a pretty big threat. Out in the midwest they’ve lost millions of ash trees due to this. And it isn’t just about aesthetics. This affects the furniture industry, and the baseball bat industry.”

Explaining how the ash borers inflict their damage, Ms. Konopka says, “The insect comes in and drills a little hole in the upper canopy of the tree, so you don’t see it right away. It lays its eggs, goes through its life cycle, and hangs out for a few years. They aren’t terrific flyers, but they do move around from tree to tree. By the time you see the symptomology of the decline, like dead branches, the tree has already been ill three to five years while the insect population is growing.”

Princeton is participating with New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s study of the insects. “In early May, we will put up a couple of traps in some ash trees to get a sample of what insects are around,” Ms. Konopka said. “We haven’t confirmed that we have them here just yet, but they are nearby.”

There are methods of preventing the spread of disease. “You can inject the trees with chemicals that are a preventative,” she said. “We’re hoping to try and stay ahead of it. We want to identify where the trees are in good health, especially those that have more historical value or are in a more prominent location, to maybe consider this kind of treatment. But it does come down to budget and what you can do. It’s not like we’re in Central Park, where you have a non-profit group that raises money.”