To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine

Emerald ash borer quarantine map. Click here for additional information. Thumbnail image by David Cappaert, courtesy of USDA.

Ever since the emerald ash borer (EAB) was discovered in Michigan in 2002, many have speculated about its potential effects on forests in the Northeast. With the confirmation of infestations in eastern New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, the speculation is over; the region is now dealing with a pest that is regarded in the same vein as chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease.

Although the ecological consequences of the emerald ash borer’s work have barely begun in our region, the forest products industry is already feeling the effects. When the bug is discovered in a state, that state is added to a federal quarantine list, which limits the movement of wood. It’s up to the states to recommend the extent of the quarantined area, and this involves balancing a complex mix of ecological and economic considerations. The recent quarantine debates in Massachusetts bear this out.

After EAB was discovered in the Berkshire County town of Dalton in September, 2012, many businesses and landowners in western Massachusetts, where 80 percent of the state’s 45 million ash trees grow, advocated a local quarantine that would only apply to Dalton and the surrounding towns. In its official position statement, the Massachusetts Forest Alliance argued against a larger restriction: “There is little scientific relevance to a quarantine zone based solely on arbitrary political borders. A more science-based approach would be to establish a quarantine zone of a given radius surrounding the source tree [which] should encompass as small an area as is feasible.”

One oft-expressed viewpoint was that the spread of EAB is inevitable, and any restrictions beyond the known infested area will needlessly hurt an industry that has already suffered significantly in recent years. Cinda Jones, president of the W.D. Cowls Company in Amherst, stated, “We’ve urged [the state] to make the quarantined area as small as possible and allow the industry to harvest what we can before the bug gets here.”

“I’d like to be able to turn those ash trees into something useful rather than have them fall on the ground and die,” voiced one Berkshire County landowner.

However, federal and state officials and entomologists have opposed local quarantines, based largely on past experiences in the Midwest where infestations turned out to be much larger than anticipated. EAB is notoriously difficult to detect during early stages of infestation, and affected trees may not show symptoms for several years. Analysis of the first known infested tree in New Hampshire indicated that EAB had been present for at least three years before it was discovered.

Another option that was considered was a statewide quarantine, which would have allowed businesses to transport ash to customers and processors throughout Massachusetts. The downside of that is that it would likely facilitate the spread of EAB across the state. According to Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Ed Lambert, it was “not an action we thought was in the state’s best interest,” adding “it certainly might have minimized the impact on the industry but, in our opinion, it would have allowed much quicker spread in parts of the state.” Another consideration is that businesses in eastern Massachusetts would not be allowed to sell to out-of-state markets, despite being a long way from Dalton and possibly years away from infestation.

The third option, a regional quarantine for Berkshire County, offered a balance between the other alternatives. However, it was the least favorable option for Berkshire County businesses, as quarantines are highly restrictive in isolated regions. There is only one hardwood sawmill in the county, and it is not equipped to handle large volumes. There is also no dry kiln available to treat lumber. (Hardwick Kilns, the state’s only facility, is in Worcester County.) Opponents also cited a regional quarantine in New York State, which adversely affected many businesses that were unable to transport to companies that use ash, including baseball bat manufacturer Rawlings Adirondack.

After considering the various viewpoints, Massachusetts officials decided to quarantine Berkshire County beginning last March. So far, follow-up monitoring has indicated just a few infested trees close to the original discovery in Dalton, and there is hope that EAB can be contained there. The regulations apply to ash stock, untreated ash lumber, and hardwood firewood. Acceptable treatments include dry kiln sterilization, fumigation, and removing bark and a half-inch of wood (the latter two are generally considered cost-prohibitive to mills).

After a brief period of being cut off from markets, Berkshire County businesses received some relief in May when the New York State quarantine was expanded to include the counties bordering Massachusetts. Because regulated materials may move freely within contiguous quarantined counties, Berkshire County ash can now be shipped to roughly half of New York State.

Realistically, the long-term outlook is bleak. As Massachusetts Forest Alliance executive director Jeff Hutchins put it: “The forest industry in Massachusetts has had a rough time over the last couple decades, so every blow like this worries people. It’s not going to completely destroy the industry, but it will be a hardship for sure.” Jeff Poirier, owner of the Berkshire Hardwoods sawmill in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, called it “devastating,” adding that it would affect 15 percent of his business. Ash constitutes 20 percent of the business of Hardwick Kilns in central Massachusetts, which processes lumber from around the Northeast.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Conservation and Recreation estimates that it will cost businesses $500 million overall. In New Hampshire, projections indicate annual losses of $1 million for industries that use ash wood, $500,000 for firewood producers, and $25 million in lost urban trees.

However, officials hope the payoff for the quarantines and their economic effects will be additional time for businesses and communities to prepare for EAB’s arrival, allowing researchers to investigate potential countermeasures, such as introduced predators. Though this is likely to take years, there’s some hope the spread may eventually be checked.

 
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