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State, Federal Forestry Officials Rush to Assess Scope of Emerald Ash Borer Outbreak

  • Orange County Forester Dave Paganelli looks at a map for Vermont's Use Value Appraisal (UVA) Program while waiting for calls regarding the new discovery of the emerald ash borers, an insect that has infected ash trees in Orange County, Vt., at his office in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 28, 2018. Paganelli said the insect could kill seven to eight percent of the trees in Orange County and five percent of all trees in Vermont. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A pile of ash firewood harvested in Strafford, Vt., and Vershire, Vt. sits at Caldwell Logging and Firewood LLC in North Thetford, Vt., on Feb. 28, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 01, 2018

Orange — State and federal forestry officials were on the ground on Wednesday, trying to assess the scope and severity of the state’s first documented outbreak of the dreaded emerald ash borer, an invasive Asian beetle that’s rapidly chewing through the nation’s ash trees.

And they weren’t mincing words about the situation.

“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,” Orange County Forester David Paganelli said. “It’s just a dark cloud.”

New Hampshire, which now hosts the small invasive insect in at least 42 communities, had its first known outbreak in 2013 in Concord, making it the 19th state to document the bug. The discovery sparked quarantines and a tree-removal campaign that may have slowed, but failed to stop, the beetle’s spread there.

Now, less than five years later, Vermont becomes the 32nd state to discover its own ground zero for the emerald ash borer: a private patch of forest in the northern reaches of the town of Orange, near the Groton State Forest and the juncture of Orange, Caledonia and Washington counties.

“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.”

Last Monday — Feb. 19 — a consulting forester noticed a dying ash tree while doing work related to the current use program. That forester submitted a picture to vtinvasives.org, a state-operated website that tracks all manner of invasive organisms. The picture was enough to prompt a visit the following day from state officials who, as they approached the property, noticed multiple dead ash trees along the road, Paganelli said. They collected samples, and received lab results on Tuesday at about noon, which prompted a news release hours later.

Paganelli spent Wednesday fielding a barrage of 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.

“Our very next step is to delineate how big the area is,” said Barbara Schultz, forest health program manager of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “We’re going to places where we don’t know what’s going on.”

Schultz called the discovery “unfortunate, but expected,” given the borer has been found in recent years throughout most of New England, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.

“We don’t know how it got to Vermont, but we know firewood is the most common way,” Schultz said.

State and federal agencies established a local command post on Wednesday and did some preliminary scouting, in preparation for a more extensive survey of the area.

She said the state might draw on a mutual assistance agreement through the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact to mobilize crews from neighboring states to help in some fashion, perhaps by assisting with the survey.

The result likely will be a quarantine to restrict the transportation of ash and firewood from the affected area to uninfested regions. The borer can spread slowly on its own — one to two miles a year, Schultz told Vermont Public Radio — but humans driving heaps of firewood allow it to blitzkrieg into new areas with alarming speed.

Paganelli said a quarantine is likely to include at least Orange, Caledonia and Washington counties. It would follow a 2016 move to ban the importation of untreated firewood into Vermont, in part to block the borer.

Schultz urged the public to look for signs of the beetle’s presence, such as a dying off of the canopy, or an overall sickly appearance.

“Live 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.”

The emerald ash borer was discovered in the U.S. in 2002, when experts concluded it rode shipping pallets from Asia to Michigan to establish its first known toehold. The insect does the most damage in its larval form, when it chews meandering tunnels through the inner bark of an otherwise healthy tree. Eventually, the tree can no longer shuttle water and nutrients along its trunk, and dies, usually within a few years of the beetle’s first arrival.

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

Ash Value

The ash may be the third North American species to suffer a massive die-off in the past century, following a blight that swept away the country’s chestnuts, and a Dutch elm disease explosion that effectively subtracted elm trees from the wild.

Orange County is known among loggers for its high concentrations of ash trees, which make up an estimated 8 percent of the county’s trees, significantly more than the statewide average of less than 5 percent, according to Paganelli.

The presence of ash is measured in different ways — 34 million individual trees, 570 million board feet, 17.5 million tons of woody mass in Vermont, according to an annual inventory — but all the numbers are gathered in the service of a vibrant ash market that helps keep loggers in business. In addition to providing lumber that can be used in construction and cabinetry, Paganelli said ash is used for everything from shovel handles to fenceposts to wooden spoons for stirring spaghetti sauce. He estimated the ash comprises as much as 20 percent of the cash value of a mixed forest’s timber.

Paganelli said that, for every tree species, there are complex interplays with other species that aren’t fully known. In addition, he said, ash trees play a vital support role for loggers by helping to shape the forest into a more commercially viable resource.

“It tends to grow faster than other tree species,” he said. When an opening in the forest canopy gives rise to a stand of new mixed hardwoods, the ash grows the most quickly, and the straightest, in the race for sunlight.

“That forces its neighbors to grow taller and straighter,” Paganelli said. “If you don’t have the ash making that trainer effect, you’ll have trees that are a little bit shorter. A little bit squatter. With a few more lower branches. And a little less valuable. It’s very subtle, but it’s real.”

A Disaster

Gabe Freitag grew up in Strafford and has been logging the region for the last 25 years, since he was 17.

“It’s going to be a disaster,” he said.

Freitag said ash is worth between $600 and $800 per thousand board feet, making it the third-most-valuable hardwood species. He’s expecting his phone to start ringing with landowners who want insight into whether they should cut their ash now, rather than wait for it to mature further and risk infection. An infected tree is not necessarily worthless, but the more severely it is affected by the borer invasion, the less value the harvested tree is likely to have.

Freitag said he won’t know how feasible it is to harvest ash until he learns more about what type of quarantine the state and federal agencies impose. Most such quarantines allow for the removal of ash timber under certain circumstances. That, Freitag said, is likely to mean more paperwork, and more costs, for loggers seeking to harvest the tree.

“It’s too early to say what a Vermont rule would entail,” Schultz said. “It’s important to know that quarantines still allow people to harvest ash saw-logs, provided it is done according to rules that limit the risk of spreading emerald ash borer.”

He predicted that the market for ash eventually will collapse as stands of the tree are harvested, with most purchasers finding other, more accessible wood to fill their needs. He said landowners would have to navigate the path between observing the new quarantine regulations, and waiting too long to harvest.

“A dead tree has no value,” he said.

Paganelli said that, if no effective method to combat emerald ash borer is found, the state’s forests will be less rich than they were before. But, he said, Vermont’s forest managers will do what they can to mitigate the loss, and work with what remains.

“We manage our woods here. We cut some trees and leave some trees,” he said. “The balance of what’s going to grow is going to change.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.