An emerald ash borer infestation is inevitable in Chittenden County, but the state and federal officials assembled Monday night in Milton made it clear: Planning, not panic, is in order when it happens.
A cadre of tree-minded specialists from the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and more put on a 90-minute presentation on the invasive pest that represents a fatal threat to the state’s 150 million ash trees sooner rather than later.
The emerald ash borer is North America’s most destructive forest insect, killing ash by tunneling behind its bark and into the tissues that transport nutrients and water to the tree.
It all sounds doom-y and gloom-y, but the experts on hand told the 30-plus attendees at the Milton Grange that they have options.
“Someone over here asked, ‘Is there a reason to be hopeful?’ That gives me a lot of hope and confidence that we have Vermont landowners that care, that are interested, that ask important questions,” Vermont FPR commissioner Michael Snyder said. “We need to take it seriously. Clearly you’re doing that, and that gives me confidence.”
A native of Asia, the emerald ash borer was discovered in the U.S. in Michigan in 2002. Since then, it’s spread to surrounding states, mostly by humans via infested firewood, and was found in Vermont this February. Since then, it’s been tracked in five counties: Orange, Washington, Caledonia, Bennington and Grand Isle.
Keith Thompson, FPR’s private lands program manager, said there isn’t one solution to slow the borer’s spread. Instead, homeowners and communities have to consider the impact of different responses.
Some, like the town of Williston, which had 42 percent urban ash trees, may elect to preventatively cut them down and plant other species in their stead. Forest owners may decide to harvest the ash – and their value – while they still can. Homeowners with a sentimental attachment to an old tree could inoculate it with state-approved pesticides. Or they could let them be.
Thompson’s main message: “Don’t be rash with your ash.”
That was welcome news to Richard Wood, a certified master arborist and tree safety professional from Colchester who has tracked the borer since it arrived in the Midwest. He and his wife, a Native Abenaki, traveled there to source ash for handcrafted baskets.
Wood said the borer narrative has, thus far, been too negative. He thinks more people – particularly those in urban, not forest, settings – should consider pesticides, what he calls a cost effective option. (He is also certified to apply them and advertises as such on his business page, TreesVermont.com.)
Wood figures it thus: It costs up to $500 to remove a tree and more than $1,500 to replant it, but it could be as low as an average $50 a year to treat one ash.
“There are other options to wholesale slaughter of the trees,” Wood said. “They are very effective, and there’s a near 20-year history proving the efficacy.”
A handful of people in the audience seemed to appreciate that scenario – they just wondered when they should start. If their tree isn’t infected now, is it too soon to inoculate it? Is it too late once there are signs of infestation?
Elise Schadler, technical assistance coordinator for Vermont Urban and Community Forestry, said treatment can begin if your ash trees are within 15 miles of an infested area. And even if the borer has moved in, pesticides can still work as long as at least half the canopy is alive, officials said.
Tim Henderson said his property on Arrowhead Mountain in Milton is full of ash, including one that measures 5 feet in diameter. He wondered whether it’s worth saving one tree in a forest that could get decimated.
There were resounding “yeses” from the crowd.
“By all means, get your conservation commission involved,” state entomologist Judy Rosovsky said. “Why not? Sounds like a beautiful tree.”
Milton’s tree warden, Kris Dulmer, said he aims to assemble a community meeting in the next few months to determine a plan for Milton’s urban ash trees. A 2015 tree inventory showed Milton has 11 percent public ash, less than neighboring towns Essex and Colchester, which have 16 and 19 percent public ash, respectively.
The urgency for a plan became more apparent once the borer was discovered in Grand Isle County in September, Dulmer said.
“There’s a couple streets in particular that are completely lined with ash trees. We probably don’t want to take them all,” he said. “We’ve gotta gauge the public’s interest and what we want to keep and what we want to take down.”
John Sharrow, a trained tree steward who led a tree-planting project in the Milton village years back, asked what citizens can do to curb the ash borer’s spread. Officials touted VTInvasives.com, a partnership between the state and the University of Vermont Extension Service, and an ash borer listserv, but their advice boiled down to awareness.
“When you’re looking at ash trees, look at them. If you see something funny on them, give one of us a call or report it,” Rosovsky, the entomologist, said. “The more people we have looking for this insect, the more likely we’ll be to find infestations or the extent of an existing infestation, and that would be really helpful.”