The selectboard officially adopted the Town of Essex Street Tree Management plan last month, setting into motion strategies to enhance Essex’s urban forest and protect it against the looming threat of invasive pests.
Developed through collaborations between the planning department, Essex Conservation and Trails Committee and the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program, the plan outlines several goals for Essex’s urban forest, including monitoring and maintaining its health, preventing pest infestations and obtaining Tree City USA designation for the town.
The potential threat of the emerald ash borer and other tree pests was a major catalyst for the 2016 street tree survey that ultimately informed this plan, said Darren Schibler, Essex town planner.
“The timing of the final document coming together and its adoption I’d say worked out well in terms of when the emerald ash borer hit,” Schibler said. “Even though that was an unfortunate event, it was good that it was ready to go when it happened.”
The emerald ash borer was discovered for the first time in Vermont in February of this year in northern Orange County, and as of June, has been found in five towns: Montpelier, Plainfield, Barre, Orange and Groton, according to VT UCF.
Per their name, emerald ash borers threaten ash trees and can kill them within three to five years of infestation, according to VT UCF. They can easily spread once a tree is infested and are also transported by humans when moving infested firewood and other products.
Essex’s management plan recommends a combination of several strategies to deal with a possible future EAB infestation, including physical removal of ash trees, chemical treatments and public education and outreach.
To reduce the town’s risk of EAB infestation, the plan recommends removing approximately 59 ash trees to reach the goal of 10 percent green ash. Currently, Essex’s public street trees stand at about 15 percent green ash.
The town plans to remove approximately six green ash trees per year for nine years instead of all at once to spread out costs and maintain visual appeal for the town’s forest canopy. Removals will be supplemented by new plantings of different species.
Town tree warden Chuck Vile stressed the importance of having a diversity of tree species in the urban canopy, citing the decimation of elms in Burlington in the mid-20th century.
“You want to keep it diversified to give yourself protection in case of something like this happening,” Vile said. “If you have a lot of the same species and you get hit with the disease, you’re quite vulnerable.”
While the town does have a good portion of ash-lined streets, Ethan Tapper, Chittenden County’s forester, noted the street tree survey only covered trees in the public right-of-way, and there may be more issues when it comes to trees on Essex’s myriad private, rural roads.
“Anecdotally, I can tell you that in many of the newer developments, there’s a ton of green ash,” Tapper said. “Those trees are not counted in the survey, so I think … there’s actually a much more pronounced problem in Essex than is even listed in the report.”
Schibler realized much of Essex is rural and in private hands and said the management plan addresses this issue by calling for a rural areas survey.
“[We’ll] go out along the rural roads and see what the general composition of the forest along those roads is,” Schibler explained. “[We’ll] do more outreach to private landowners to tell them about some of the issues with tree care and especially with invasive forest pests such as emerald ash borer.”
Removing dead trees after an infestation is also part of the management plan; however, this can cost two to three times more than removing live or dying trees. The plan calls for reactive removal only in situations where high species diversity already exists, which makes the spreading of pests less likely.
Chemical treatments to combat EAB will also be considered if the pest spreads here. However, the measure will only be used to proactively treat trees at the beginning of an infestation and won’t be used in large quanitities.
The town will consider using azadirachtin, similar to neem oil, for this purpose The insecticide is recommended by VT UCF because other alternatives are not as effective or harm important pollinators.
The plan also calls for working toward obtaining a Tree City USA designation through the Arbor Day Foundation. This involves adopting a tree care ordinance, forming a citizen board, creating an urban forestry management budget spending $2 per capita on tree management and observing Arbor Day each year, according to the management plan.
Essex Jct. has been awarded the Tree City USA designation for three years in a row since adopting its own urban forest management plan in 2016.
“Thus far we’ve planted 106 trees throughout the village, focusing on the downtown areas and the major roads coming in,” said Nick Meyer, chairman of the Essex Jct. Tree Advisory Committee. “We’ve made some great progress over the years, and people are starting to notice, too.”
The village celebrates Arbor Day every year in May, which Meyer said raises awareness of trees’ benefits.
“We often take the forest landscape for granted,” he said.
Plans are already in motion since the town’s tree management plan was approved by the selectboard in June, and town officials are eager to begin implementation.
“It’s nice to know that there is a more comprehensive and strategic plan for urban forestry,” Schibler said. “A lot of people like seeing trees in their neighborhoods, and it really has a lot of benefits.”