FORT WAYNE – Chad Tinkel admits he didn’t dedicate his education and life to trees, dreaming of one day he would oversee the removal of thousands of them from his hometown’s canopy.
Yet here he is, thanks to the emerald ash borer, the insect forcing Fort Wayne to cut down dead and dying ash trees before they become public safety problems.
It’s just the hand I got dealt, he said with a laugh.
The city arborist – officially the parks’ manager of forestry operations – is leading the fight against the largest tree disaster in decades, a fight he admits can’t be won without the loss of nearly a quarter of the city’s street trees.
That fight, however, has drawn national attention as other communities seek guidance from Fort Wayne as they prepare for a similar infestation.
Tinkel has traveled to Minneapolis; Toledo; Louisville, Ky.; Cincinnati and Pittsburgh – at the expense of the host communities – to share the story of how the Summit City has battled the ash borer.
Al Moll, city parks director, said he isn’t surprised Tinkel is being sought for help by other communities, calling him one of the city’s silent heroes in developing the plan to manage the infestation.
We were just fortunate to have someone like him, Moll said. He comes across as very knowledgeable and that’s because he is.
A graduate of Homestead High School, Tinkel always enjoyed the outdoors. From backpacking to taking environmental science trips to scuba diving, he said he considers himself an outdoorsman. But trees weren’t his first dream; that went to marine biology.
Real life quickly changed his mind.
I quickly learned it was extremely expensive to go to school along the coasts, he said.
So he selected Purdue, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in forestry. He then went into the private sector as a commercial arborist before landing a job at the city working on the maintenance crews.
It was there that Tinkel got his first experience with heavy tree damage: the ice storm of 2009. He and the crews worked throughout the city to remove tons of broken limbs caused by the heavy ice.
In May 2009, just after the storm cleanup, Tinkel was named city arborist, replacing 20-year veteran Bill Diedrichs.
Tinkel is quick to laud Diedrichs, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indiana Arborist Association, for setting the foundation for him, including building community support for trees and setting up an inventory of every street tree in Fort Wayne. That inventory – now computerized – can tell Tinkel the shape, age and maintenance of every tree, and is a tool Moll said has been vital in responding to the ash borer.
A modern forester
Getting the chance to travel to different communities to discuss the ash borer has been a great experience, Tinkel said, noting that the forestry community is typically open about the issues it faces.
I can’t say that I ever stop learning, he said.
Cliff Sadoff, the extension officer at Purdue who specializes in the ash borer, called Tinkel a modern urban forester for the way he uses technology to track his canopy. Sadoff often uses Tinkel as an example when talking about the ash borer with other communities.
He’s really able to know where the problem is and what’s working and not working, he said.
Moll said he has been impressed with Tinkel’s ability to handle pressure so calmly, especially at a young age. Tinkel turns 40 this summer.
He also isn’t one to mince words. Tinkel answers questions about his family and those about dying trees in the same matter-of-fact, straightforward style.
That is just his personality, according to Sadoff, who said Tinkel is not one to hide what he is thinking.
A losing battle
Tinkel’s prominence in sharing Fort Wayne’s story is partly because of his willingness to discuss problems openly, but also because of when the Summit City was infected.
Detroit received the ash borer from Asia first, but that city was already inundated before anyone knew anything about the insect.
Detroit got pretty much run over, Tinkel said.
Fort Wayne, however, had some time to prepare and think about options. The city tried treating thousands of trees several years ago, Sadoff said, but money for those treatments vanished. The city was able to save about 1,000 ash trees – including those along Clinton Street – with treatment, and they look quite healthy today.
That doesn’t mean the city doesn’t face problems in dealing with the ash borer. Tinkel said there are 4,000 to 5,000 dead ash trees still standing in the community. Mayor Tom Henry this year pledged to dedicate $1.5 million to remove 4,500 ash trees from city streets. The city once had 14,000 ash trees lining its streets, but that number is down to 8,000.
Sadoff, however, said Tinkel and the city can’t be blamed for these deaths, as there wasn’t enough knowledge about ash borer treatments before Fort Wayne was infected. He also believes the earlier treatment of all the trees helped stagger the death rate Fort Wayne has seen. Without the treatment, he said, all of the city’s ash trees would likely already be dead.
It would be worse, he said.
Fort Wayne’s battle with the ash borer, even if futile, serves as a great example for other communities, Sadoff said.
Part of the problem some communities face with the ash borer is its slow ramp up to infestation. Sadoff said the percentage of infested trees typically doubles every year in a community.
This means that there are several years when the tree deaths are slow and can be handled without extra expense, Tinkle said.
Shawn Bernick, vice president of Rainbow Tree Care Scientific of Minnesota, said only 20 percent of a city’s ash tree population is lost in the first four to eight years after an area is infested. In the next three to five years, however, the remaining 80 percent can be destroyed.
There’s no getting around it, if you have native ash trees, you’re going to have to deal with it at some point in time, he said.
Bernick’s company works with universities to develop plans and products to manage the ash borer. He has worked with Tinkel through the Minnesota Turf and Grounds Foundation, as Minneapolis is the current western border for ash borer infestation.
He said Tinkel has been a key asset in illustrating what the borer can do to a community’s trees – and budget – for places just being introduced to the pest. Tinkel admits that some communities simply don’t want to believe the problem will be so pervasive and expensive, until he shows pictures of Fort Wayne streets lined by dead ash trees.
Sadoff said when he presents facts on the ash borer, people can dismiss him as a professor painting unrealistic scenarios, but when Tinkel shows the pictures of young children playing under dead trees, the reality hits home.
Chad is gracious enough to share his story with a lot of people so people will believe, Sadoff said. He’s just motivated to help his colleagues in other cities.
Fort Wayne’s story even reveals odd problems caused by the ash borer, Bernick said, such as the fact a community may not have enough crews available to cut down all of its dead trees.
Parks Director Moll said with all the attention Fort Wayne and Tinkel are getting, he has to make sure Tinkel is comfortable in the Summit City so he isn’t enticed to take another opportunity.
Tinkel, however, says that likely isn’t going to be an issue. He said he has been amazed by the support he has received from the community, from neighborhood associations offering to treat street trees to individual homeowners offering to pay to cut down dead ash trees in front of their houses.
Where I am right now was my goal, Tinkel said. I feel very fortunate to be here sooner than I thought. This was my goal when I got into urban forestry.