Avenue of Lights scales back after tree loss

Emerald ash borer deforested Oconto Falls’ North Main Street
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

The emerald ash borer has claimed thousands of trees across Wisconsin in recent years, and now the scourge has led to changes in a longtime Oconto Falls Christmas season tradition.

The Oconto Falls Lioness Club announced last week that because many trees had to be removed along North Main Street near East Side Beach, the lighted corridor from Highland Avenue into downtown Oconto Falls cannot be recreated this year.

After the invasive ash borer was discovered in the city, the state Department of Natural Resources recommended removing trees that could be affected to stop the spread of the pest.

“The DNR recommended removing the trees right away, so we started basically as soon as the lights came off in the spring,” City Administrator Peter Wills said Nov. 13. “We removed around 65 trees, not just in the East Side Beach area but throughout the city.”

The Lioness Club is in the process of decorating the beach area and Lotter Park with figurines and lights, as usual. The annual celebration featuring Christmas caroling and Santa’s visit will continue, starting at 6 p.m. Nov. 25 at the East Side Beach shelter.

The club will not be seeking sponsorships or putting out signs this year.

“We hope to bring back the Avenue of Lights in its full splendor very soon and appreciate your understanding while we navigate the changes we need to make to adapt to the ever-changing landscape,” the announcement said.

Wills said in May that the city will be seeking donations to support the planting of new trees. The City Council approved a donation and memorial policy May 9 allowing for a plaque bearing the names of those supporting the new trees or to be used as a memorial.

Emerald ash borer was spotted in both Oconto and Shawano counties in 2020, in Shawano city trees in 2021, in Menominee County in 2022, and in April 2023 in Oconto Falls and just west of Gillett.

It is a beetle native to China that attacks ash trees starting at the top and working its way down, before the tree is completely dead. First discovered in Wisconsin about 20 years ago, EAB kills all varieties of ash trees (white ash, green ash and black ash) but is not known to affect any other Wisconsin tree species. More than 99% of Wisconsin’s ash trees are expected to die, according to the DNR.