South Burlington ash trees’ short respite from death has ended.

City councilors voted to resume the city’s public works plan to systematically cut down ash trees, while at the same time replanting, to preemptively avoid its invasive killer: the emerald ash borer.

Councilors voted to halt cutting the trees at a meeting last month after resident Rosanne Greco asked them to consider restorative alternatives. Public works director Justin Rabidoux argued that municipalities across the state have similar management plans and that alternatives, such as injecting trees with experimental medicine, are expensive and not guaranteed.

Waiting for the healthy trees to become infected before chopping them down would likely mean higher costs in a shorter timeframe, he added.

Councilors were initially persuaded to enact a moratorium, but at their meeting Sept. 7, a majority voted to continue the current plan to cut down ash trees preemptively. Councilors Tim Barritt and Helen Riehle dissented.

Discovered in the U.S. in 2002, the emerald ash borer is an invasive insect that slowly kills ash trees by upsetting a tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. The bug made its way to Vermont in 2018, prompting South Burlington city staff to propose different management plans, including the one they settled on: to cut down the city’s nearly 800 ash trees, before they get sick and replant other saplings at the same time.

“The beetles are here,” Rabidoux said at the recent meeting, adding that they will eventually infect all of the city’s ash trees our trees, which will kill them within three to five years.

While Montpelier has a nearly identical management plan as South Burlington, the capital city is attempting alternative management with a small grove of ash trees, Rabidoux confirmed.

Councilor Meaghan Emery expressed interest in learning more about that practice, noting her “heart is with the trees” but the costs outweigh the probable benefits.

“I understand the arguments, I just think it’s a little bit premature to be cutting (trees) down when they’re healthy,” councilor Tim Barritt said before voting against the plan. “Nature can find a way, we might get eaten to death by this borer, I just think it’s premature. I agree with planting but I think we should delay cutting down for a while.”

Emery suggested exploring opportunities to save a few trees, similar to Montpelier, which Rabidoux suggested discussing in the upcoming budget season.

Only about 60 trees are scheduled to be cut down until the next budget cycle, Rabidoux said.

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