Minnesota’s Morrison County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is awaiting legislative approval for a grant that would allow the district to treat oak wilt along the northwestern edge of the disease in Minnesota before it strikes state forestland.
“This area is a strategic spot to control oak wilt,” state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forest Health Specialist Brian Schwingle said. “Beyond it are thousands of acres of private and public forests that could be greatly affected.”
A landowner in 2015 noticed a number of the property’s oak trees dying rapidly and requested assistance from the DNR. Schwingle and other staff then confirmed the disease and have been working on preventive measures. Staff also conducted other site studies, discovered more pockets and began working with the SWCD to address the issue.
Morrison SWCD applied for the $100,000 Oak Wilt Suppression at the Northern Edge grant early in 2018 and in January 2019 received support from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to be funded through the state’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
At the time of the application, 12 sites had been identified near Little Falls in Morrison County. Since, the number of affected locations discovered has grown to around 55. The disease can kill red oaks in about one month. Other species such as white and bur oaks also can be afflicted but symptoms progress slower.
“We’re really just trying to wrap our head around how to approach the problem since it’s grown,” District Manager Shannon Wettstein said. “We definitely accept there will be a lot of challenges when we’re trying to get to wiping out the oak wilt in the county, but that’s our goal. Morrison County really is the threshold. The vision is a hopeful one, to eradicate it and stop this problem before it reaches our bigger state forests.”
If approved, the SWCD would begin work in July, both contracting out 100 percent of the control work and reaching out to landowners about the process. Because oak wilt spreads through the roots as well as the air, the treatment includes vibratory plowing and removal and destruction of diseased trees on each identified site.
The grant would pay 100 percent of the treatment costs, so the DNR and SWCD are hopeful that the program will be well received by landowners.
“The challenge is engaging everyone and including everyone,” Schwingle said. “That’s why it’s so fantastic that the SWCD is on board.”
In identifying sites, the DNR and SWCD noticed that many of the small-property owners already have some contact with the district, whether through other programs, monitoring or past inquiries.
“We’re hoping that will help when we speak to these folks and have that hard discussion about losing their trees,” Wettstein said. “Hopefully that trust that has been built up will help us work through this.”
“It’s quite troubling knowing we’re going to lose a lot of trees and landowners won’t be real receptive initially,” she said. “But the grant is for three years, and we’ll keep in touch with these landowners and help them get to a place where they can see the vision and understand it could get worse if not treated.”
Morrison SWCD and the DNR also will be working with landowners on possible ways to keep trees. For example, if a landowner has four oaks on the property and one is afflicted, there may be potential for injecting a fungicide into the healthy oaks to prevent the spread to those other trees. The fungicide lasts for two years, at which time another injection would be needed.
“We’re giving them all the options we can for best management practices to help deal with it,” Wettstein said. “We’re explaining that we will be there along the way.”