- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2016

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) -

Strolling through Harmon Park on any merry Monday, you’re apt to be taken by surprise by a pair of wooden eyes. No waifs, these, however. They’re six foot tall and handsome.

The eyes belong to a set of eight wooden sculptures, created from the remains of the park’s once stately elm trees. The trees had died as a result of Dutch elm disease, but now they will become new treasures, thanks to the artistry of the Bear Hollow Wood Carvers.

Williston Herald reported (https://bit.ly/2cTl9XZ ) two of the carvers were in town for the Chokecherry Festival, where they demonstrated their skills with some pine stumps provided by the city. Those carvings were auctioned off at about $300 each to help support the festival.

The two were hired to stay a few more days after the festival to carve some of the park’s elm tree stumps. They did a series with a wildlife theme on one of end of the park and another with a kid-friendly, Scandinavian focus near some playground equipment. These figures are called Nisse, and in Scandinavian lore, they are the guardians of all that they survey. In this case, the children’s play area.

The tree stumps had to be specially prepared for the carvers. First, they were topped at about 6 feet, which gave the carvers plenty of wood to work with. All the bark was also removed for the carvers, because it would just get in the way of their carving. It was also a necessary step from the standpoint of disease prevention, however.

The bark provides habitat for the insects that cause Dutch elm disease, allowing them to overwinter. Removing their habitat made it OK to keep the tree stumps around, according to Bruce Johnson, the city’s forester. Without the bark, the insects will die off in winter.

Johnson said Harmon park is where the city had its first case of Dutch Elm disease 30 years ago. It is believed some campers brought in some firewood that harbored the insects. Once Dutch elm gets into a community, it is virtually impossible to control its spread. The roots of trees pass it along underground to an entire community of trees, and the insects themselves will travel from one lush tree to the next in search of dinner and new habitat.

“The last tree that succumbs will be the end of Dutch elm in Williston,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to keep it out of a city. You remove them as soon as you see the first signs, but it’s just too foregone. They exit one tree and go to another. A lot of it is root grafting. You see a whole row of trees dying. Other cities with larger forestry departments than ours have also lost all their elm trees.”

The city is replanting trees with new elm varieties that resist the disease, as well as encouraging homeowners to consider other species of trees. There is a matching program to help homeowners pay for new trees. Johnson may be contacted at 701-577-6368 for details on that.

Sabrina Ramey, with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said they are hoping to bring the carvers back for a future Chokecherry Festival to create more of the tree stump statues from trees that have succumbed to Dutch elm and need to be removed.

In particular, the area by the Mad Hatter sculpture has several trees that will need to be taken out. They could one day become part of an Alice in Wonderland series.

Whether that happens just depends on future funding for the CVB, Ramey said. “Bringing the carvers in just for the festival was $3,000, so these things do cost more than people realize,” she said. “There will hopefully be another opportunity to bring them back to do more carvings, but only time will tell. It depends on what the budget looks like for next year as far as if we can make that commitment.”

In any case, the carvers have enlarged a hollow in the base of the Mad Hatter statue, which is going to be used for a geocache.

“It will be a fairly obvious geocache, but it will help get people into the park and enjoying it,” Ramey said. “And if we can complete that series one day, it will be really, really cool.”

While it is sad the old trees died due to Dutch elm disease, the wood carving has offered a chance to make something lasting of what remains, Ramey pointed out.

“They are being treated with a sealant so it’s not just raw wood out there in the elements,” she added. “They should last a long time.”

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Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

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