The town and village plan to start removing public trees as part of a long-term plan to brace for the arrival of the emerald ash borer.
The invasive bug was first spotted in central Vermont early last year, and recent sightings in Bristol and South Hero have led those paying attention to believe its arrival in Chittenden County is all but inevitable.
“It’s being discovered more and more, so it’s probably just a question of time,” said Nick Meyer, chairman of the village’s tree committee, which created a management plan last year that looks to mitigate the bug’s impact.
A little over 20 percent of Essex Jct.’s public tree stock is ash, and the village’s plan calls for the removal of about 190 of those, starting with eight in the current fiscal year. Many ash trees are located in the southwest quadrant of the village, where the committee will focus its initial efforts. Meyer said the committee has already reached out to the area’s homeowner’s association to inform residents early on why trees are coming down.
The town also has a management plan. It aims to whittle down the ash tree population to about 10 percent of the overall street tree stock by 2024 and calls for the removal of 10 trees this fiscal year.
Town planner Darren Schibler said the municipality will likely contract the work and start with trees in poor condition, or those near utility lines, that would have to be removed anyway. Then, officials will reevaluate the plan and see if more removals are necessary, Schibler said.
“If we do need to keep removing, we’ll keep removing until they’re essentially gone,” Schibler said.
The emerald ash borer was first found in the U.S. in Michigan in 2002, likely by hitchhiking on shipping material from its native Asia, and has killed millions of trees across the country since then. The bug makes its home underneath an ash’s bark, tunneling through the outer wood and disrupting the tree’s flow of nutrients — essentially killing it from the top down. A telltale sign of infestation is the D-shaped exit wound left in a tree’s bark.
Experts are unsure whether the borer will eat its way through Vermont and die out or if it will stick around, and Meyer acknowledged that cutting down trees before the bug has been sighted in Chittenden County may seem premature.
“It’s a vexing problem,” he said, “because we have trees that look wonderful down there, and why would you be cutting these things down?”
Still, early action has its benefits. Most of the village’s ash trees are still small enough that public works may be able to remove them instead of a trained arborist, cutting down on the costs. Once trees become infested, however, the risks — and price — go up. Infected trees could cost more than twice as much to remove compared to healthy ones.
Removals are only part of the management plan. Both municipalities say they want to replace trees whenever possible, further adding to the costs.
Sometimes that won’t be an option, because some trees were put in “bad spots to begin with,” Schibler said. But in cases where there’s not a viable space to put a tree in the public right-of-way, the town may offer to plant a tree on a homeowner’s property free of charge. It would then take care of it for a year — similar to a program offered in the village — before the tree becomes the homeowner’s responsibility.
The village’s replacement efforts come with the help of a new partnership with Branch Out Burlington!, which has given the village space at its community nursery.
Thirty trees planted at the nursery this summer will be ready for replacement two years from now, and Meyer said the committee expects to plant another 40 or so next year.
Growing its own trees will save the village thousands of dollars over the long-term, Meyer said, with a commercial nursery charging over $300 for the same trees it will cost about $100 to raise at the Burlington nursery.
Penny pinching is always a necessary exercise for committees like Meyer’s; competing for funding each year with vital services, they often end up operating on shoestring budgets. But frugality has become especially important now, with the tree committee able to put only $5,000 toward the ash tree management program, half of the $11,000 it had initially requested to tackle to problem over the next decade.
The town has a bit more money to work with. It’s already set aside nearly $10,000 in the current fiscal year, and Schibler said staff plans to propose adding another $10,000 in the next budget cycle before ramping up the removals in the following years.
Meyer has no hard feelings about the trustees’ allocation. He understands there’s only so much money to go around and said the board has been “extremely supportive” of the committee’s work. He called the $5,000 a “great start.”
But he expects to ask for more money this budget cycle, and said he hopes the committee can use it to show the benefits of a proactive approach to the EAB problem. Either way, the work will get done, he said.
“It’s just going to take a longer period of time to do it,” he said.