Planning for an Invasion

“The arrival of the emerald ash borer is seemingly imminent, and there are no known methods of control,” warns Peter Smallidge of New York’s Cooperative Extension service at Cornell University, in a bulletin released this past fall.

The emerald ash borer, a beetle native to Asia that first turned up in Detroit in 2002 and has been spreading ever since, arrived in western Pennsylvania last summer. At its current rate of travel, it may arrive in New York state this summer and New England a few years hence. The insect is also spreading north of the Great Lakes through Ontario, dimming the hope that the infestation’s spread might be controlled by cold winter weather.

Smallidge is encouraging New York landowners to take two steps in the coming year to help address the situation. First is to keep on the lookout for emerald ash borers themselves. The beetles are approximately half an inch long, narrow, and emerald-colored; the most obvious evidence of their damage are S-shaped galleries that their larvae excavate under the bark of live ash trees during the summer. (See “The Northeast’s Most Wanted” in the Winter 2007 issue of Northern Woodlands.) 

But more than that, Smallidge hopes that individual landowners will undertake the sobering work of re-evaluating their forest management plans to deal with the pending infestation. The owner’s objectives, in combination with the abundance of ash, will largely influence the extent of changes needed in the plan. Timber-stand improvement work might be conducted with an eye towards reducing the overall percentage of ash in a given forest type. Mature ash approaching market size might be harvested sooner rather than later. And landowners with forests dominated by ash should be sure to retain the seed-producing trees of other species that will be needed to regenerate the forest following the loss of the ash.

Besides thinking about the big trees, landowners with lots of ash trees should inventory and, when possible, control any invasive plant species that are already growing in the understory. The sudden loss of the ash trees in the canopy will bring increased light and resources to these invasives, potentially fanning a smoldering problem into a major blaze.

Despite the severity of the infestation to date and the near-certainty of its imminent spread to New York, Smallidge urges landowners to be “calm and deliberate in your decision making.” Consult with foresters, stay up to date on the latest information, and take time to consider various management options. The reason to start making decisions now is to avoid having to make hasty decisions at the last minute.

“The potential effects of emerald ash borer are on the same scale of disturbance as chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease,” concludes Smallidge. It may seem unimaginable to picture our forests devoid of ash, yet it must have been equally unimaginable to our forebears to picture a forest devoid of chestnut or elm. The time has come, it seems, to start thinking the unthinkable and begin adapting forest management decisions to this insect’s impending arrival.


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