Sooner or later: The emerald ash borer will come to town

Wednesday April 17, 2013

In our corner of Vermont, we usually don't have much time to prepare for storms. Irene swept in with a few days' warning, and we did our best to get ready in short order. A late-March storm recently left as much as two feet of powder in town with little advanced notice. But some threats approach our town much more slowly. As a local tree professional, working in the area for the last 12 years, I've been watching as a danger to our ash trees has been looming closer and closer. One afternoon recently I was thinking about this threat as I pulled into Harmony Parking Lot. Just as I was getting out, my friend Adam showed up on his way to get a sandwich. He asked me what I was up to. I told him I was taking pictures of the trees to alert people to the threat of Emerald Ash Borer.

"Oh my gosh, all these median trees are ashes! If we lose them, they'll have to replant little sticks that won't be casting shade for decades! Someone told me that we should be getting rid of our ash trees before the borer gets them."

And this is where I had to explain to Adam some of the misconceptions about managing the coming Emerald Ash Borer infestation. And since not everyone is the naturalist that Adam is, perhaps I should back up a little.

In 2002, folks near Detroit realized that something was killing their ash trees. Ashes were widely planted on streets throughout America after Dutch Elm Disease came through in the mid-1900s. They're tolerant of urban landscapes, and grow to be majestic, beautiful trees. The cause for the ash death turned out to be an iridescent green little bug that showed up from Asia in shipping pallets. Without natural predators, EAB started attacking healthy and sick ash trees alike, and spreading fast. The borers are excellent flyers and have a nose for their trees.

Across the Midwest, in 17 states, EAB has turned verdant street trees into expensive public safety problems. Trees can die in two to four years under heavy pressure, and the cost for dealing with EAB has been estimated to exceed $10 billion.

You may have seen purple box traps hanging high up in ashtrees around town recently; they are there to detect the movement of EAB, and so far none have been found in Vermont. But the bugs have been across the border in New York since 2009, and are now just north of Vermont in Quebec. Last fall, they were found in Dalton, Mass., just 50 miles from Brattleboro. This month, the Feds announced an expanded ash quarantine area in New York State, which restricts the movement of logs, firewood, and nursery stock. Just this week they were confirmed to be present in Concord, N.H. Jim Esden, our forester with the Vermont department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, doesn't talk about "if" EAB will arrive in Brattleboro, but rather, "when."

So there's the bad news. And really, there isn't a whole lot of good news, but there is some hope. Researchers are working on ways to control Emerald Ash Borer using stingless wasps, and are studying why some very small ash trees are not killed. And there are communities in the Midwest that have already been through an infestation, and they can teach us what they learned. If we start planning and acting now, we can blunt the impact EAB will have in Brattleboro. Dealing with EAB in our woodlots and public forests is a whole other topic, and requires a whole other approach. Here are some things we can do to help get ready for EAB in our towns:

Keep an eye on your ashes. You know them by their regularly furrowed bark and by the twigs that come out opposite each other on both sides of the branch. Ash twigs are straight-ish and stockier than maples, and when they leaf out, they have little leaflets coming off a central leaf stalk. Get to recognize the ash trees in your neighborhood, and look for decline in leafiness, tiny D-shaped holes in the bark, or a lot of woodpecker activity. Because EAB can live in a tree at low levels for some years, it's helpful to identify them early. Once the borers reach a critical mass,they can quickly kill off all the ash trees across entire areas.You can visit for more help if you're wondering if what you're looking at was caused by EAB.

Don't move firewood more than 50 miles, and don't bring it across state borders. If you heat with wood, buy it locally. Fully 80 percent of new satellite outbreaks of EAB are due to movement of firewood, usually to a camp or other remote site. You can now buy firewood at most campsites, so you can buy it where you burn it. Learn more at

Get involved. Forest Pest First Detectors provides training for spotting EAB and the two other invasive tree killers of immediate concern: Hemlock Wooly Adelgid and Asian Longhorn Beetle. You can learn more at Local tree boards and tree wardens will be needing your support as well. In Brattleboro, work is under way to complete a preparedness plan, and volunteers will be needed to help take stock of where our ash trees are. There will be an information session for concerned citizens and volunteers May 6 at 5:30 p.m. at the Brooks Library meeting room.

There is hope for individual ash trees of all sizes. If you live with an ash tree at your house, it is possible to protect it. There are products that can be applied as a soil drench, or injected directly into the trunk, that are then taken up by the tree. In addition to professional applicators, there are some home-owner products available that can be used on smaller trees. The label on these products is a legal document and must be followed carefully. Get professional advice before chemically treating your trees, even if you will be doing it yourself. You can check with a licensed professional or your county forester.

So there in Harmony Lot, I explained to Adam a little bit about the differences in managing EAB in forests and towns, and we talked about the things that could be done to help our street trees. Then he asked me if I wanted to grab a sandwich with him. I declined, and told him I'd already eaten, but the truth was I felt like I was running out of time.

Bob Everingham is an ISA certified arborist at All About Trees. You can reach him at or 802-579-3084.


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