It’s a little green bug that’s causing a big problem and a lot of confusion. A recent survey by the USDA Forest Service found there are about 3.8 Billion Ash trees in the state of Ohio. That sounds like good news, sure. The bad news is, they’re probably all going to die. The story behind this environmental disaster is a common one; the non-native invasive species. The Emerald Ash Borer is a beetle-like insect from Asia that arrived in Southeast Michigan, probably in a packing crate, sometime in the 1990’s. By early 2003, it had made its way south to northwest Ohio, and state officials responded with a firewood quarantine in affected counties to prevent the bug’s spread. Soon more and more counties were added to the list until last year when the insects’ presence was confirmed in Wayne National Forest in Southeast Ohio and Cincinnati in Southwest Ohio, prompting state officials to expand the firewood quarantine statewide.
It works like this; the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) larvae burrow beneath the bark and feed on the living portion of the tree, destroying the ash tree’s ability to move nutrients and water to parts of the tree where they’re needed. The appearance of the tree may be at first unchanged as all the damage is beneath the bark, but in a matter of a few years the tree starves from within and dies. There is a native Ash Borer in Ohio, but its proliferation and affect has been nothing like the Asian variety. Insecticide treatments have had mixed results, and EAB numbers continue to grow. Many naturalists think that ultimately the end result of this epidemic could be extinction of the Ash tree in Ohio.
The environmental and economic impact this pest is having on Ohio’s rural and urban trees is staggering. To attach a number to this cost depends upon what we are going to do about the problem; do we just let it kill all our ash trees in our parks, lining our streets and in our forests, or do we try to head the bug off treat or replace every affected tree? According to estimates from the International Society for Arboriculture, the low end cost for a single state to address the damage is $1.8 Billion, on the high end it’s $7.6 Billion. To put that in terms that are easier to understand, a city the size of Elyria’s burden for this mess could be as high as $36 Million!
News like that has many people wondering what, exactly is an ash tree, and can we just live without them. Also, once all the ash trees are gone, will this little bug move on to kill all our oak, maple and pine trees? If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that there are only five species of true Ash tree in Ohio (the Fraxinus genus, Blue, White, Green and Pumpkin) and the Emerald Ash Borer is as finicky as old Morris, and will only eat the Ash. Also good news, the Ash tree isn’t an irreplaceable food source for wildlife, although they are currently sort of a bonanza for the woodpeckers.
The bad news, 3.8 billion trees is going to leave gaping holes in our woodlands. Nature will repair itself and fill in with other species in time, but the devastation will be widespread, starting on the East Coast and ranging out somewhere on the western plains where the woods peter out and the amber waves of grain take over. The EAB has already been confirmed present from New Hampshire to North Carolina and as far west as Kansas, so this is not just a theory. Also bad news is that not all ash trees are in remote forests and dead trees will all eventually fall down. They will fall on tree lawns, on playgrounds, on roads, on power lines, on automobiles, on houses. As Ohions we all know when these trees will come down for the most part too, in wind storms, ice storms and snow storms. When we’ve removed the ones that are obvious, it will be the ones we don’t see, the ones that fell in the river forming a log jam and a flood that will continue to wreak havoc.
At present, no financial assistance is being offered by the state to homeowners with Ash trees, and nobody from the state will come look at your trees either. What they do offer is the advice that if you have an ash tree on your property you’d like to keep, you should consult a professional arborist about your options.
The only point of hope I can offer is that sometimes the effects of a non-native invasive species are not as terrible as conventional wisdom might suggest. Remember the Gobie and the Zebra Mussel?