Peter and the stump: One man struggles with citys growing stump problem

THE WEDGE — Peter Sukki Kim and the stump in front of his home are at a stalemate.

The irregular wooden disk on the boulevard is all that remains of an elm that had once towered over Colfax Avenue. It has been chiseled, hacked at, drilled into, doused with chemicals and set on fire. But it remains, its roots protecting a clump of weeds and saplings from the lawn mower.

“It’s just getting worse,” Kim said, inspecting the tangled growth.

The battle waged against the stump by Kim and his partner, Eric Meininger, even drew police and fire crews to their home earlier this summer. They are among hundreds of Minneapolis homeowners learning the time that passes between removal of a boulevard tree and removal of a stump often stretches into a frustrating, years-long wait.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has a growing backlog of stumps and insufficient funds to make headway on the problem. The average wait for stump removal has grown to two to four years, Park Board Forestry Director Ralph Sievert estimated.

Contracted crews work neighborhood-by-neighborhood to grind down the thousands of stumps along boulevards and in public spaces at a cost to the Park Board of about $350,000 per year. It would take closer to $1 million to eliminate all of the stumps, Sievert said.

“Barring some change in funding priorities, I don’t see that we do necessarily catch up,” he said.

The bottom line, Sievert said, is that stumps are an aesthetic issue. The Park Board has focused resources on combating Dutch elm disease and planting new trees, instead.

Impatient homeowners can pay out-of-pocket to have a tree service remove a stump. But not even a Park Board commissioner can speed the wait for Park Board-funded stump removal, as Commissioner Bob Fine knows all to well.

“When people called me up [to complain], I said, ‘Look, I know what you’re going through, [but] it’s a budget problem,” Fine said.

The stump in front of Fine’s Linden Hills home was three or four years old, he guessed.

“It’s a stump to put my recycling material on [so] it doesn’t kill any grass,” Fine joked, attempting to put a positive spin on the situation. “That’s not a good enough reason to keep it, obviously.”

Back to the grind

Dutch elm disease is the scourge of the urban forest. The city has been fighting a losing battle against the disease since the 1970s.

Every summer, trees exhibiting signs of Dutch elm are cut down and ground into wood chips by forestry crews. That makes the disease one of the biggest contributors to the stump backlog.

Much of that backlog was created, Sievert said, in two particularly bad years for the city’s trees.

The summer of 1998 saw a series of powerful storms sweep through the city, downing trees of all varieties. Then, in 2005, the number of diseased elms removed from public property jumped way up, to about 5,000 from just 2,000 in an average year.

This summer, the Park Board cut down roughly 1,700 diseased elms. An equal number of trees on public property came down for various other reasons, putting the total number of new stumps somewhere around 3,400, most of them located on boulevards.

Sievert estimated only about 2,200 stumps were removed this year, meaning the backlog grew once again.

Stumps are not completely removed, just ground down with power tools. And that’s how the Park Board measures the task, in “inches-to-grind,” Sievert explained.

Inches-to-grind is the width of a stump, including the roots — about 53 inches, on average.

At the beginning of 2008, the city had about 313,000 inches to grind. If this year is anything like a typical year, another 135,000 inches of stump will be added to the grinding backlog.

By the time stump removal wraps up, city contractors will have ground down only about 87,000 inches of tree stump, Sievert predicted.

Park Board administrators have determined the fairest and most cost-effective way to remove stumps is by neighborhood. Each year, a list of neighborhoods is slated for stump removal, with priority given to the neighborhoods with the oldest stumps and the most inches to grind.

Ten neighborhoods made the list this summer, including ECCO and East Harriet in Southwest. Next year’s list was yet to be determined, Sievert said.

Drastic measures

It was two or three years after their elm tree was cut down — and only after numerous calls to the city — that Kim and Meininger took matters into their own hands, first attacking the stump with a drill and attempting to chisel it out bit by bit.

“It didn’t work,” Kim said. “… It’s just so deep. I mean, look at it: it’s a monster. It’s a very strong tree.”

A winter passed. Then, this summer, came removal attempt number two.

“I don’t know where he got this idea,” Kim said, but one day Meininger made a trip to Home Depot and came home with Stump-Out, a chemical product designed to accelerate the natural decomposition of wood.

Step One of the removal process involves an application of the chemical. Step Two, which is optional and takes place several weeks later, calls for pouring kerosene or some other flammable liquid into the partially decomposed stump and setting it on fire.

Meininger opted for Step Two.

“He was here, sitting there gardening” and monitoring the stump as it burned, Kim said. Despite the precautions, a passerby alarmed by the flames and smoke called 911.

Kim said the fire was doused, but Meininger was never cited. The stump won.

Today, the elm stump is charred and hollow, filled with cobwebs and partially hidden by weeds.

The Wedge, where Kim serves on the neighborhood association board, has used funds its Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds to help homeowners pay for stump removal. But Kim’s stump didn’t qualify; the location, too near a driveway, was deemed unsuitable for replanting.

He, like so many others, will just have to wait.