Emerald ash borer is a confirmed threat to Vermont forests

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The emerald ash borer has spread to 32 states, now including Vermont.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

The emerald ash borer, the Asian beetle that has been chewing its way through North America’s ash trees, has arrived in Vermont, an event as long anticipated as it is unwelcome.

“It’s something we’ve been expecting,” said Barbara Schultz, forest health program manager for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation.

“It’s a tree killer,” Schultz said. “We’re not going to be able to get rid of it.”

The prognosis by Orange County Forester David Paganelli is equally grim.

“This is going to kill the ash trees and there’s no solution and there’s no fix and there’s no silver lining to the dark cloud,” Paganelli said. “It’s just a dark cloud.”

The first evidence of the beetle was discovered last month in Orange County, by the borders of both Caledonia and Washington counties. A consulting forester doing work on a private woodlot in the town of Orange, near Groton State Forest, noticed a dying ash tree.

He sent a photograph to vtinvasives.org, a state-operated website. The image was enough to prompt a next-day visit by state foresters who, as they approached the property, noticed multiple dead and dying ash trees along the road, Paganelli said. They took samples, and the results came in, prompting an almost immediate news release.

Paganelli spent Wednesday fielding calls from anxious foresters, loggers and landowners, seeking information.

“I’m sick about it. It’s terrible. It’s like losing a loved one,” Paganelli said.

“It’s not a small spot. It’s not 20 trees in a clump,” Paganelli said of the infested area. “It’s a big area, probably measured in square miles.”

Schultz called the discovery “unfortunate, but expected.” The invasive insect has made its presence known throughout the U.S., including in other New England states, New York, and in Quebec. It was detected in New Hampshire in 2013, and despite quarantines and a tree-removal effort, the beetle has continued to spread.

Officials from both state and federal agencies are preparing to conduct an extensive survey of the area, to determine how far the beetle has spread. They may call for assistance from neighboring states though the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact, Schultz said.

The next step likely will be a quarantine of the area where the beetle was found. Restricting the transportation not only of ash but also of all firewood from the affected area, will slow the spread to unaffected areas.

The borer wouldn’t get very far if it had only its own six legs to rely on — one to two miles a year, Schultz said — but human transport of firewood accelerates the spread.

Paganelli said a quarantine likely would include Orange, Caledonia and Washington counties. There has been a ban in place since 2016 prohibiting the import of untreated firewood into Vermont.

The emerald ash borer is a relative newcomer to the U.S. It was only discovered in 2002 in Michigan, believed to have stowed away on pallets used in shipping.

The insect does the most damage in its larval form, when it chews meandering tunnels through the inner bark of an otherwise healthy tree, depriving the tree over time of the means to transport water and nutrients. Trees usually die within a year or two.

Tens of millions of ash trees have been lost in the U.S. and Canada, and the final tally could number in the billions.

The ash is the third important North American tree species to succumb to blight over the last century, following the American chestnut, and the elm.

Five percent of all of Vermont’s trees are ash trees. In Orange County, the ash comprises 8 percent of all trees, Paganelli said.

However it is measured — 34 million individual trees, 570 million board feet, 17.5 million tons of woody mass in Vermont, according to an annual inventory — the numbers indicate a tree that is highly valued and widely used, in construction and cabinetry, for everything from shovel handles to fence posts to wooden spoons for stirring spaghetti sauce. Paganelli said the ash comprises as much as 20 percent of the cash value of a mixed forest’s timber.

Schultz urged Vermonters to keep an eye out for beetle signs, such as a sudden die-off of trees, or an overall sickly appearance, and to report what they see to vtinvasives.org.

“Ash trees with a lot of woodpecker activity, that’s something to draw your attention,” she said. “Maybe there’s something wrong with that tree.”

About one percent of ash populations survive infestations, Schultz said. Biologists find it a source of hope, she said, because those few surviving trees could indicate genetic tolerance in a small subset of ash trees.

Landowners with questions should contact their county foresters, Schultz said. A list of county foresters can be found online on the state Forest Parks and Recreation website: fpr.vermont.gov.

This story was first published in the Valley News on Mar. 1, 2018. Michael Polhamus of VTDigger.org also contributed to this report.

There is a public meeting in Barre tonight to discuss the discovery of emerald ash borer in Orange County. The meeting is being hosted by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, in cooperation with the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the US Forest Service. 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Barre First Presbyterian Church,19 Seminary Street, Barre. For more information on the emerald ash borer, visit vtinvasives.org.

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