The emerald ash borer isn’t just costing towns trees; it’s costing them money

  • The life cycle of an emerald ash borer lasts betwen one to two years beginning with eggs being laid on ash tree bark from June to August. The larvae, left, feed on the cambium layer of the tree and spend the winter in the pre-pupal stage, middle, before pupating in spring and emerging as mature insects, right, in May. Over about five years, an infected tree will weaken and die from larvae having eaten away the layer of tissue that transports nutrients in the tree. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A large ash that was preemptively cut in anticipation of the arrival of the emerald ash borer lies in the Norwich, Vt., Nature Area on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • A damaged white ash is one of two on the west edge of the green in Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, May 5, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/6/2022 3:17:04 PM
Modified: 5/6/2022 3:17:12 PM

WOODSTOCK — Strolling down Pleasant Street toward downtown Woodstock, pedestrians can look up at an open canopy of ash branches. The village planted the stately trees after Dutch elm disease decimated the iconic American elm in the mid-20th century.

Now, the replacement trees are facing an epidemic of their own as the emerald ash borer spreads in the northeast.

The Woodstock Board of Village Trustees is prepared to spend nearly $10,000 a year on average to inoculate about 110 trees for years to come, a campaign that will start with $9,500 to inject 45 to 65 trees with pesticides this May. The trees will need to be inoculated every other year to stay protected. As the tree warden sees it, that’s getting off cheap.

“Replacing the trees once they die (is) more expensive than saving them,” said Don Wheeler, the Woodstock tree warden, who estimates that replacing a single downtown tree would cost between $2,000 and $10,000, depending on its size.

The emerald ash borer is a jewel-green beetle whose small larvae burrow below the bark of an ash tree. Once the insect establishes itself in a region, it kills virtually all ashes available. The emerald ash borer not only spells an ecological calamity for New England’s forests — ash trees make up about 5% of the trees in Vermont and New Hampshire — but presents towns with expenses that will run well into the tens of thousands.

Ash trees grow fast, even in the poor soil along a road, and several towns have high numbers of ash trees in their village centers. If towns do nothing, the aesthetics of their villages could change dramatically. Meanwhile, the ash trees that line roadways, parks and public property present another cost: If allowed to stay standing long enough to rot and die, they will become “hazard trees” that put people at risk.

State officials in Vermont and New Hampshire urge preemptive action, but they have left management up to municipalities. Some, including many in New Hampshire, have yet to even inventory their ash trees to evaluate the scope of problem.

Other towns, such as Corinth, have counted many of their roadside ash trees, identified potential hazard trees and put funds aside for taking them down as needed.

And others, such as Windsor, remain in the monitoring phase after an initial count.

“I think to do any preemptive removal with no confirmed sighting of EAB (emerald ash borer) in town — it’s cost-prohibitive. … It’s more of a wait-and-see approach before any selective cutting,” said Michael Metivier, Windsor’s tree warden. He is also hesitant to use pesticides because of possible negative side effects in the environment and the cost; besides, there are few ash trees in the center of Windsor.

Timing and aesthetics

The emerald ash borer is encroaching fast. In 2022, there were new confirmed sightings in Pomfret, Lyme and Orford, and it was already confirmed in Hartford, Lebanon, Hanover, Enfield and Canaan. And its spread is unlikely to be limited to where it’s been officially sighted.

“It just happens really fast,” said Elise Schadler, program manager of the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program. “An infested tree will have no physical, visible signs until year three or four of infestation. And it’s dead by the fifth year.”

By the time a town confirms that the beetle is in its borders, the majority of its thousands of ash trees may be dead and dying on the side of the road within a year or two, landing the town with a large and urgent expense, she said.

Still, it is cost-prohibitive to preemptively remove all ash from roadways, she said. Schadler has two recommendations for towns: Leave ash on the landscape when possible, and remove the ones that need to go before the infestation is too far along. Dead trees safely inside a town forest, for example, have ecological benefits, offering nutrients and habitat to wildlife. Ash left standing also have a slim chance at surviving and establishing a strain that can resist the emerald ash borer. However, waiting to remove an ash tree until it is brittle and dying increases the cost of removal as well as the dangers to arborists. And a brittle tree loses value as lumber and firewood — value that could help defray a town’s costs.

Tourism dollars are at stake along with the ash trees, said Ray Bourgeois, a member of the Woodstock Selectboard who attended the trustees’ April meeting when Wheeler presented plans to inoculate ash. Tree-lined streets are an essential piece of Woodstock’s charm.

But some trustees doubted the long-term viability of the plan to inoculate trees.

“We’re prolonging something that will happen anyway. We’re putting off the inevitable,” said Seton McIlroy, chairwoman the board of trustees. “Let’s start thinking how we can start slowly replacing them in addition to saving them.”

Yet Wheeler is optimistic about industry improvements to treat ash trees. With time, the inoculations may even become a one-time “silver bullet,” he hopes.

And the infestation will crest about nine years after the initial invasion, and then treatments will likely not need to be applied as regularly, Schadler said.

Vermont does not help municipalities pay for inoculation.

“We know that it’s a long-term commitment and don’t feel the soft funding of grants is appropriate. Towns have to make the commitment,” Schadler said.

Paying the price

Vermont Urban and Community Forestry, known as UCF, did award 20 $2,000 grants to plan for the emerald ash borer in 2019. Towns including Corinth, Bradford, Sharon and Vershire took advantage of the program. With funds from the Forest Service, UCF has also awarded grant money to towns outside the Upper Valley to manage the emerald ash borer.

In New Hampshire, fewer towns have counted their trees. With its allocations from the Forest Service, New Hampshire invested in two injection guns to inoculate trees, said A.J. Dupere, the urban forester at the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands. The guns cost several thousand dollars each, accounting for much of the expense of inoculating ash trees. Municipalities with staff licensed to apply the pesticides can borrow the equipment at no cost. A pilot program also helped four towns outside the Upper Valley count and plan for the emerald ash borer.

In Corinth, town officials have prepared for the emerald ash borer’s arrival for years. As of yet, it has not been sighted in town. In 2019, with the help of a state grant, Corinth surveyed about 30 miles out of the town’s 100 miles of roadways, and found over 1,100 trees. “It showed the magnitude of the problem we’ll face,” said Virginia Barlow, the Corinth tree warden. Since 2020, the town has set aside $5,000 annually to build a reserve fund to manage its ash trees.

“Someday, we’re going to have to make a more aggressive effort,” Selectboard Chair Rick Cawley said. “If it becomes widespread in this general region, these trees are going to start dying and falling in the road. Then we’re taking them out.”

In the meantime, though, the town is making sure to remove ash trees as it clears its roads. When Bruce Limlaw, of the logging company Limlaw Pulpwood, cleared Cookeville Road, he also pulled out the ash trees. The timber he gathered significantly lowered the cost to the town, said Joe Blodgett, Corinth’s road foreman. Working with a logger is “a great, safe, efficient way to trim roadsides back,” Blodgett said.

On back roads, he feels confident that he and his team can take down most ash trees. But on busier, paved roads, it can be dangerous work.

Meanwhile, several towns are looking ahead to what they may plant in the future.

“We’re trying to think forward in terms of what species are going north,” Metivier said. He is considering planting hickory and sycamore trees.

“Diversity equals resilience,” Schadler said. The aesthetic benefit of a uniform row of trees is not worth opening a town up to the next pest or pathogen that indiscriminately attacks a species, she said.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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