Editor’s Note: On news of the emerald ash borer’s advancement in the Northeast, we reached out to forester Nicholas Sanchez in Michigan for a glimpse of what a mature infestation looks like.
The first time I heard of emerald ash borer (EAB) was in my dendrology class in 2009 at Michigan State University. We were just learning our native trees and I remember my professor saying, “You can kiss your ash goodbye.” Along with the opposite branching and compound leaves, D-shaped exit holes were becoming an identifying characteristic.
Soon after, I started working at the local county parks department and began to see the devastation first-hand. The first tree I cut with a chainsaw was a dead white ash, and I imagine I will never forget that. Wetlands surrounding the park entrance were full of green ash which were visibly succumbing to EAB. From my gatehouse post, I remember thinking that I could even hear the EAB infestation through the hammering of eager woodpeckers.
When I began my current job as a conservation district forester in western Michigan three years ago, I started working directly with private landowners whose woodlands were being dramatically affected by EAB. When the insect was first discovered in the area, some landowners tried to harvest and sell as much of their ash as they could, so the market for ash got saturated pretty quickly. And it all happened so fast, there wasn’t a lot of time for the word to get out. Some private landowners have been able to sell dead white ash in their timber harvests up until quite recently, but from what I have seen, the timber buyers now assume the wood is no longer of value.
The devastation has been wide spread, and now, even the fifth-grade students I work with are familiar with EAB. The loss of ash was apparent to everyone as the process played out, whether they lived in the city where the streets were lined with ash, or lost a tree in their backyard, or saw entire wetlands lose most of their trees.
Those once-forested wetlands have been particularly hard hit. They are now dominated by shrubs, often times Eurasian honeysuckle. Anecdotally, it seems that non-native shrubs like Eurasian honeysuckle and buckthorn have greatly benefited from the new light and exploited the available habitat where ash skeletons remain.
The consequences from the loss of our ash trees go beyond the invasion of invasive plants. In Kent County, we are working closely with partners like Trout Unlimited to assist private landowners in the Rogue River watershed with the goal of addressing erosion and habitat deficiencies. This watershed is rather unusual in the way that it’s an urban coldwater system, well known for its trout populations. A local landowner named Chuck recently invited me to his property: 24 acres formerly occupied by living green ash. It has a creek running through, a trout stream and tributary to the Rogue River. With the exception of a handful of soft maples, this site was almost completely devastated by EAB. A trout stream once protected by ash canopy is now completely day-lighted. The landowner and his neighbors have been cutting firewood year-round, but know they will never catch up before the wood begins to rot. While we climbed over downed trees, in the distance we heard a ripping crash, another ash tree down. For landowners like Chuck, and for the forest and water systems, EAB has been an environmental disaster.
We are now trying to work with as many landowners as possible to replant these sites where natural regeneration has failed and address the invasive shrubs that now dominate.