MUNICIPALITIES AND HOMEOWNERS ARE EMPLOYING SOME EXPENSIVE AND SOMETIMES FUTILE REMEDIES TO COMBAT THE NASTY WORK OF CHINA’S EMERALD ASH BORER.
When Todd Robinson returned home from the Vietnam War in 1968, he recalled the shock of driving down Richmond Avenue and seeing the devastation. The elm trees were all cut down,” Robinson recalled. “It looked like a barren wasteland. … I saw just stumps.”
That was the effect of Dutch elm disease that stripped Northeastern cities of the stately elm. Now another all-American tree species – the ash – is falling victim to another intruder.
The emerald ash borer – a voracious wood-boring beetle introduced to this country on a wooden palette of automobile parts shipped from China in the 1990s – is responsible for killing millions of ash trees in 25 states as far west as Colorado. Their infestation includes Erie County, where one in five trees is an ash.
Robinson, a retired quality auditor for General Motors Power Train, now lives in East Amherst. And he again is witness to tree devastation. He recently paid $4,000 to have 22 towering ash trees removed from his yard.
“We bought this house in ’94 because of the trees. That was a big attraction,” said Robinson, 69. “It happened so quickly. It was sick overnight. Foliage was getting sparse. The ash borer is tiny but so destructive.”
A lot of tree cutting is going on in Erie County these days because of the invasion of the green beetles. It is difficult to determine the number of infested ash trees because many municipalities have not completed tree inventories.
But Cheektowaga last year took down 200 beetle-infested trees in Town Park. At Reinstein Woods Environmental Education Center in Cheektowaga, one-third of the ash trees were infected, said director Meaghan Boise-Green.
In 2014, 50 trees were removed.
“We definitely see an impact on the forest structure,” said Boise-Green. “That’s going to be a real change not having them there.”
Amherst, meanwhile, is spending $500,000 to save 9,000 ash trees, said Patrick G. Lucey, the Amherst highway superintendent. He described the death toll throughout the town as “enormous.”
In Lancaster, 1,200 of the town’s 16,000-tree population are ash, and they all are infected, said Mark Lubera, park crew chief. Fifty have been removed. The remainder are being treated.
Trees in the county parks also are infested. In Akron Falls, 205 of the 1,380 trees are ash. In Como Park, there are 354 infected ash trees out of 2,129 total trees, according to Daniel J. Rizzo, Erie County Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. Most of the infected ashes will die, he said.
Less than 5 percent of New York’s forests are infested with ash borers, but all of the state’s 900 million ash trees are at risk, according to a report issued by New York Invasive Species Research Institute at Cornell University Cooperative Extension.
The emerald borer first surfaced locally in 2011 in Lancaster, near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. About the same time, Olmsted Parks Conservancy workers reported finding ash borers on the grounds of Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens in South Park.
As municipal leaders, property owners and residents in the eight counties of Western New York realize the economic and aesthetic toll taken on their landscape, experts maintain there is still time to save the ash tree. But the emerald ash borer is not going away.
“It will be here infecting and killing trees,” said Patrick Marren, senior forester with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “If you want to treat and try to save your tree, this may be the last year to begin the process.”
Elms to ashes
After the American elm all but disappeared from the urban terrain some 50 years ago, arborists turned to the fast-growing ash to landscape parkways, side streets and commercial strips. The durable tree is tolerant to conditions common in compacted city soil with a high pH and poor drainage.
“As a result of Dutch elm disease, city foresters learned not to plant … too many of one type of tree on a street or in a city,” said James Kisker, sales manager for Schichtel’s Nursery in Springville. “Streets were planted 100 percent with elm trees, and when the disease hit, it created a devastating economic impact … as well as an aesthetic impact that destroyed the look of some of our magnificent parkways and residential side streets.”
“An ash tree, like the elm, is a large maturing shade tree,” Kisker said. “It is not an overly expensive tree. It is a good tree economically that is 70 percent the cost of maples and hackberries. But there are others, so we’re planting different hardwood trees – honey locust, maple, tulip trees, hackberry, sweetgum, Kentucky coffeetree, black tupelo and lots of oaks.”
The eight counties of Western New York are experiencing intense infestation of the emerald ash borer, said Andrea Locke, coordinator of the WNY Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management. One reason, she said, was the transport of firewood infected with the beetle. In spring 2009, the state DEC prohibited untreated firewood from entering the state. It also banned transport of untreated wood more than 50 miles from its source. May marked a busy time for the borer. Each May females lay at least 100 eggs producing larvae that tunnel through the tree bark and into the cambium – the area between the bark and the tree – where nutrient levels are high. For several weeks from late July through October they feast, slowly cutting off the tree’s nutrients. Finally the tree’s leaves turn brown and fall off, stripping branches bare.
Symptoms of infestation include: thinning of the canopy with smaller and fewer leaves, vertical cracking in the bark, epicormic shoots (water sprouts) and the sound of hungry woodpeckers looking to snack on borer.
At South Park, Olmsted Parks Conservancy crews “girdled” ash trees, a process that slows the spread of infestation. It involved stripping select trees of an eight-to-ten inch swath of bark, turning them into borer magnets.
“This is consistent with the New York’s Slow Ash Mortality management approach,” said Kristen Davidson, DEC public affairs specialist. “Essentially, SLAM’s goal – using girdled trap trees and systemic insecticides to protect individual trees – is to keep as many ash trees alive as long as possible in as much of New York State as possible.”
Federal and state agencies are working on biological controls to curb the borer’s appetite, said Marren, the DEC forester. Specifically, predator wasps that lay eggs on larvae producing more wasps that consume ash borers. “They are not expected to work in the short term,” said Marren.
Imported pests including the emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle cause more than $2 billion in damages each year, reported a team of scientists led by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Harvard Forest.
Keeping the borer at bay has taken a financial toll on the local front, according to municipal officials from Lancaster to Amherst who have varied approaches to the beetle infestation.
Amherst’s campaign to save trees on streets and right-of-ways began in 2012, said Lucey.
“The town board authorized the project in 2012, and every budget since then has included a line to fund the $100,000 a year project,” said Lucey. “The vast majority have been saved.”
Lubera, park crew chief for Lancaster, said the infestation has not yet reached the midway point.
“When it started in Michigan, I knew it would come to this,” Lubera said. “Either cut the ash down or inject, and you must keep injecting until this plague leaves. There are 1,200 ash trees on the streets of Lancaster, and I’ve injected pretty much all of them starting in 2010. You must take a hard look and be objective. The cost is astronomical.
“Eight liters of material costs on average $3,000 and should cover 100 trees depending on their size,” he said.
Rizzo, the county’s new commissioner of parks, is formulating a plan with the help of arborist Shane Daley, who until recently was tree care supervisor for Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
“People first have to realize that the trees in their yards are dying,” said Bill Schreiber, arborist with Wright Frontier Tree Care in Cheektowaga. “It takes a couple of years for an emerald ash borer to kill a tree, and then you can’t climb it because they fall right apart. By the time the canopy is reduced 30 to 40 percent, you should consider if you want to treat the tree or cut it down,” said Schreiber.
“Look at it from a safety standpoint,” he said. “Is it near pedestrian or vehicle traffic? Could it take down power lines? Is it in a backyard where children play? We’ll go through a neighbor’s yard, get a crane and remove the tree. Or bring in a man-lift and remove the tree piece by piece.”
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank has launched an initiative to identify healthy populations of native white and green ash still producing seeds, said Locke, the invasive species specialist.
“Seeds will be put in cold storage, and years from now we will have the resource to repopulate our forest with ash,” said Locke.
Last year, more than 70 volunteers collected ash seeds from various locations during 220 collections throughout the state from Jamestown to Staten Island, Locke said.
The solution may be the ash itself.
Marren pointed to the blue ash as showing some resistance to emerald ash borer.
“We’re seeing mortality, so we’re looking for the wild survivor ash,” Marren said. “It would be good for people to notify us if they know of one.”
By Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich | News Staff Reporter: [email protected]