Paula Johnston, vice president of Oak Wilt Specialists in Wimberley, is passionate about trees.
Her company employs certified arborists with Texas Oak Wilt Certification and belongs to the Texas Oak Wilt Technical Advisory Board.
When told of Donald Wood's complaint about Erath County workers trimming live oaks on his property on County Road 252 with no preventive measures in place for the spread of the "oak wilt" disease, she said, "Utility trimming can be a potentially bad problem.
"If it were me, I'd be raising absolute hell over that —property values decline with oak wilt."
Wood said oak wilt, which is carried by a sap-sucking beetle on its body and is attracted to open tree wounds, has been across the road from Wood’s property for quite some time. He said he is careful and leaves the trees alone for he feared the oak wilt would make its way to his trees and he knew how devastating it is to a landowner. Wood said he talked to his area commissioner several times about pruning trees at his fence line.
Wood said sometimes he must trim trees around his home but when he does he seals the cut and then wraps saran wrap around the wound, attaching it with duct tape.
And when he purchased the property in 1995, he did so as an investment for retirement, and turned down property where almost all the trees were gone because of oak wilt.
Incidentally, because of his background, Wood may understand property value and what oak wilt can do to a per acre value better than some. He said he’s been at it long enough to know the difference between normal "oak decline" and oak wilt. He said oak decline is a few dead limbs here and there and doesn’t compare to the damage oak wilt does to a tree.
He began working for the highway department in 1966 as a right-of-way agent and first became acquainted with oak wilt disease back then, in the 60s.
While at the highway department, he received his real estate appraiser and broker's license and gained credentials as a valuation of land expert.
Wood began work with the Texas General Land Office in 1980 as a staff field appraiser and in 1987 he transferred to Austin as Director of Special Project Appraisals. Then, in 1991, he became the Associate Chief Appraiser for the organization and said his main responsibility was to oversee and assist the Chief Appraiser in procuring and managing appraisal of one million acres of permanent school fund lands. Wood said he was charged with periodic appraisals of all state lands and he also provided appraisals for the Texas Veteran's Land Board where he advised potential buyers about oak wilt if the property they were considering was infected.
"People either love trees are hate them but 80 percent are tree lovers and they definitely add value to land," Wood said.
Johnston said, "In this area you can't be too careful with live oaks and red oaks. One reason we have so many problems is that people cut on trees without spraying open wounds. Pruning sealer, latex paint or car undercoat, all work fine. Car undercoat is the least expensive."
Johnston said the beetles are most active February through June, however, she stressed the bugs are active 12 months out of the year, and she said not sealing a tree wound any time of year is "playing with fire," especially, she said, in areas where there is a known "oak wilt center." She said she is all too familiar with oak wilt centers that began in August or September.
"They (the beetles) can be on an open wound in as little as 15 minutes," Johnston said. "And under their own power they can fly a little over a mile - that's not taking into consideration wind currents that could take them even further."
Johnston said out of about 63 counties with the oak wilt problem her company works 45 of them.
"Erath County has a moderate amount," Johnston said. "Hayes, Williamson and Travis counties are really hard hit."
"Red oak is the original source of inoculants," Johnston said. "When they contract oak wilt they are capable of forming spore mats, which the beetles see as a food source. It has a sweet odor and is very attractive to them. The spores are sticky and they stick to their bodies. Unfortunately, when a live oak gets it, it spreads through the root system because that is how they reproduce."
Wood said he was also concerned that the county moved from to tree to tree without disinfecting the equipment, which he had read would also spread the disease, but Johnston said, "Typically, that will not be a problem." She said oak wilt is "delicate as far as a fungus goes."
Johnston said a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit stops the fungus from propagating and at 107 to 108 degrees F it will die. She said motorized equipment like a chainsaw heats up well over the amount required to kill the fungus.
"Hand tools should be sprayed with a bleach solution," Johnston said. "Lysol spray works well, too, and it is not corrosive and easier to carry around with you."
"If I were queen of Texas you couldn't buy or sell a piece of property without disclosure (of the disease)." Johnston said. She said she believes all sales of property should require an oak wilt inspection "so at least the buyer would know what they're dealing with."
Johnston said many times buyers first hear about oak wilt at the closing table as a ‘By the way — you might want to check this out,’ type thing in passing.
"Most people don't know what it is," Johnston said. "The buyer should have to sit down and have an hour long discussion with someone qualified to explain the dos and don'ts of trimming trees or cutting them down."
Johnston said it's also important for builders to know what to do when preparing a site for a new home.
"Most of the time they (people in general) didn't know they were doing something wrong," Johnston said. "I see that a lot."
When Johnston was asked if there were road crews in the state that practiced prevention she said, "Some crews with TXDOT are doing a very good job - some don’t. It depends on the crew chief and what employees are told to do from things I have personally seen."
"I get all kinds of calls and emails from people," Johnston said. She said she is contacted often by those that have seen road crews out cutting without using preventive disease control measures and said she tells people if they want something done to call TXDOT or call city officials, "You have to get real ugly about it - then the more likely they are to do something."
Johnston said her company charges $12 per diameter inch to treat a tree with fungicide but "it is not a permanent solution." And the treatment will only take care of that tree on an individual basis, she said.
"In two years you re-treat, hopefully by that time the disease will have moved forward enough so that you don’t have to treat for a third time," Johnston said.
She said when the tree is initially infected it takes 90 to 120 days to see a problem.
Trenching is another method of treatment done in an effort to sever healthy roots from infected ones, Johnston said. But, she said that would not prevent the death of the sick tree or group of infected trees. Johnston said the current trenching charge is $3.50 per linear foot.
Johnston said Texas has one of the highest rates of the disease in the U.S. and with 65 percent of the tree population in central Texas being oak; the most effective plan is to educate people about prevention and spread of the disease.