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Bug-infested forests, scarring our mountainsides with swaths of red or gray trees, receive more scrutiny. But a similar malady menacing Salt Lake City's urban forest suddenly has the attention of arborists and politicians alike.

The city's stately sycamores — along with maples, honeylocusts and other species that canopy streets and give neighborhoods character — are sick.

And since City Hall doesn't have enough cash to combat the insects and disease through regular spraying, it may turn to its residents to help pay for a remedy. Tree hugging, it appears, may get more expensive.

"We've kind of set this up just by the way we've planted these same trees side by side 60 or 70 years ago," explains Bill Rutherford, the city's urban forester. "We're starting to run these trees on fumes. They're gasping right now."

One culprit is age. Like humans, who become more susceptible to disease when they get older, 50-foot London planes, maples and some evergreens are vulnerable. They also have become easy targets for insects, Rutherford notes, since so many "mono-culture" trees are planted tightly in rows, without the diversity of extra greenery operating as a barrier.

"It provides the beautiful arching canopy. It has such wonderful curb appeal," Rutherford says of the trees adorning streets from the Harvard-Yale to Glendale areas. "A lot of people say they selected the neighborhood because of the trees."

But now that 5,500 trees are declining, the city is paying the price for those ornamental plantings.

"Without treatment, the look and feel of our city where these trees are located will change dramatically and will not be recoverable for 20 to 30 years," reads a statement on the city's online forum "Open City Hall," which raises the prospect of financial aid from property owners.

A single year of treatment will cost $358,000. The budget for insect and disease intervention is $5,000. So without extra money, the forestry workers will only be able to spray 200 trees at a cost of $25 each.

Suggested solutions include:

• Creating a program for affected homeowners to share the cost of the tree care.

• Coordinating a campaign that refers property owners to private service providers.

• Allowing infested trees to deteriorate, while pruning, removing and replanting as needed.

The let-nature-run-its-course option raises other questions. Should the city ask property owners to pay for some or all of the new trees? And if the city elects to "re-forest," should it plant new species, ones less likely to play host to insects and disease?

City officials say no decision has been made and that raising the topic on their "Open City Hall" online forum is designed simply to solicit feedback.

Yet Mayor Ralph Becker expresses his preference, particularly since the same $175 it takes to plant a 2-inch caliper tree could be used to treat up to seven mature trees.

"The administration believes that some care needs to be given to protect a portion — if not all of the established trees," Open City Hall reads. "The trees are enormously valuable to the associated property. They define neighborhoods, increase property values, beautify homes and communities. Children ride bikes under their canopy, while neighbors rest in their shade. These are assets the city does not want to lose. However, we need your help determining how to pay for their care."

Neighborhood reaction is as tangled as the subject's roots.

"The old trees are vital to the neighborhoods," writes Glen Elkins, "and I would certainly be willing share the cost of preserving them with the city."

Gene Fitzgerald says the half-century-old maples lining his street — "slowly dying of some sort of blight" — are what drew him to the University of Utah neighborhood three decades ago.

"I suspect the maples were planted without knowing that they were or would be susceptible to this disease," he writes. "They must be replaced. I too would share the expenses with the city to remove them (when they are needed to be removed) and replant new trees that are more suitable to the environment."

Glenn Sorensen isn't as magnanimous.

"This cost should come out of the city's tax revenues since the trees are an integral part of the city's infrastructure," he writes. "Not only do the home and business owners benefit, but all residents benefit from a green, shaded city. I don't want my neighbors' trees to die just because they chose not to participate. If the city can't cut another program to pay to spray the trees, they may need to raise taxes."

Several residents argue the financial burden should be spread evenly and that all the trees in trouble, not just patches, should be treated. Others suggest property owners who let their trees die should be charged for the removal and replanting.

But Scott Morham says homeowners lucky enough to have a big beauty out front should fix the problem themselves.

"I like my tree and am glad to help it out anyway I can," he writes. "This does not seem like a job for government."

Rutherford says he is unaware of another city that calls on its residents to help fund tree treatments. But he recalls that Sacramento, Calif., where he served as arborist, served as a liaison between residents concerned about the health of street trees and private contractors.

"The idea is to share some of the cost," he says. "If we can't do something to replenish the energy reserves in the trees, their decline downhill will continue."

Fears over SLC's urban forest

• 5,500 street trees in SLC, many sycamores, are sick.

• City is $350,000 shy for this year's tree-treatment budget.

• Aging sycamores, maples, honeylocusts and some evergreens suffer from insects or disease.

• City Hall is soliciting feedback online at "Open City Hall" about whether residents should help pay for spraying or let aging trees die to replant.