The Future of Pennsylvania Forests: The Emerald Ash Borer Strikes

Ash trees line our main streets and fill many of our yards. They grow quickly, providing shade and they require little maintenance. In forests, the trees are a multi-million dollar product. But ash trees are under attack from a little green beetle. And the trees are losing. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray explores how homeowners, the state and the U.S. are all dealing with this crisis.

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OPEN: Ash trees line our Main streets and fill many of our yards. They grow quickly, providing shade and they require little maintenance. In forests, the trees are a multi-million dollar product. Their hard wood is the key ingredient in baseball bats, tools with long wooden handles, cabinets and floors. But ash trees are under attack from a little green beetle. And the trees are losing. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray explores how homeowners, the state and the U.S. are all dealing with this crisis.

MURRAY: Ken Tomajko is working in a backyard in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. He's using one of the latest weapons in the war on the Emerald Ash Borer.

TOMAJKO: One of the first steps is that I have my diameter of the tree. Come over to my chart and it's telling me I need 50 milliliters of the active product.

MURRAY: Tomajko's an arborist with Arborel Tree Service. Heís applying an insecticide known as TREE-age to some Ash trees. An inspector had told the home buyer, Steve Levine that he and his wife might want to protect their many ash trees from the emerald ash borer. So they called in Tomajko.

LEVINE: My back yard is filled with a lot of trees and it was one of the features that very much attracted us to the house and we kind of felt that if we were able to do so financially we wanted to make an effort to save as many of the trees as possible.

MURRAY; Arborel charges $200 to $600 dollars, depending on the size of the tree. Homeowners like Levine can't just spray a tree on their own with TREE-age. Tomajko explains the application involves drilling and plugging holes.

TOMAJKO: Drilling the tree making sure that the system is closed making sure that the plug when I put it in is at an angle is it flush so that thereís no leaks to come out the side. Then when I put this product in there weíll hook up right into those little arbor plugs right there and then the product will go up inside the tree.

MURRAY Treating one tree takes 15 or so minutes. It lasts up to three years. Many homeowners may not know their ash trees need protection. The tree Tomajko's injecting with Tree-age looks pretty healthy to an untrained eye. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything. That's because the pest that's attacking this type of tree is small. When the damage reaches the human eye level, it's too late.

While Tree-age is useful for property owners and communities, it's too expensive and time consuming for the thousands of trees in our native forests. In Pennsylvania, ash trees are most prominent in the northern tier. The Emerald Ash Borer doesn't have any natural enemies in the US and our Ash trees lack any natural resistance to it.

So for forests, the only hope is a biological control.

EGGEN: we just open it up put them next to the tree kind of urge them out a little bit. They fly away.

MURRAY: Dr. Donald Eggen is the Forest Health Manager with the Bureau of Forestry in the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In a state forest in central Pennsylvania, he's releasing tiny wasps that are aggressive enemies of the Emerald Ash Borer in the beetle's native Asia.

EGGEN: These are very small, tiny waspsÖ these guys are specialized in attacking other insectsÖ so these are tiny wasps that look for EAB larvae under the barkÖ

MURRAY: Eggen says the DCNR expects the wasp program to take at least a decade before the agency knows whether itís made a difference.
Even then, the insect wonít be eradicated -- just controlled to a manageable level. Eggen says the wasp program doesnít help our existing Ash trees--only their successors.

EGGEN: From the standpoint of the forests. These trees are going to die. In this forest that weíre here, virtually all of them are going to die eventually within three to five years if not sooner.

MURRAY: State agencies don't yet know how hard the loss of ash trees will hit Pennsylvania's economy. The emerald ash borer is close but hasn't quite made it to Pennsylvaniaís northern forests where ash trees feed a profitable baseball bat industry.

A recent study in the journal of environmental management estimates the cost to communities nationwide to will be 12 and a half billion dollars. So far, Congress has appropriated about 280 million dollars to the USDA. The US Forest Service has spent around 30 million of its own money on research and bio-controls since 2003.

The Emerald Ash Borer was first detected in and around Detroit in 2002. It probably hitched a ride from Asia in packing material made of wood.
Since then, it has spread into 15 other states including Pennsylvania and seems unstoppable.

BELL: It's like a perfect pest for trees

MURRAY: Phillip Bell manages the Eastern Region Emerald Ash Borer Program for the USDAís Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

BELL: It's small. Early infestations can go undetected for a number of years and by the time we find the pest with the tools that are available right now it can have spread to other locations either just natural spread or via fire wood or logs.

MURRAY: The borer was first found in Pennsylvania in 2007 in and around Cranberry Township, a fast-growing suburb north of Pittsburgh. Researchers have discovered the insect landed in the area seven or eight years before it was detected. Since then it has spread to at least 22 other counties. The state developed a detailed Emerald Ash Borer Action Plan in 2006. A plan yes but, as it turned out,Bell says, not a very successful one.

BELL: The plan as written and developed is great I mean would be perfect if we had a small infestation but the fact is the infestations are more than what we thought so it's hard to garner the resources to address all those new infestations.

MURRAY: But Pennsylvania agencies are still trying. A new action plan asks urban communities to figure out if they want to treat stricken trees individually or replace them with other tree species. The plan also calls for foresters to reduce the percentage of ash trees they grow.

So, what have we learned from the whole emerald ash borer experience? USDA scientists say a lot. They believe their work is uncovering other insect pests that are approaching the United States and is giving agencies impetus for closer inspections of goods coming into the country. Something that could have stopped the emerald ash borer in the first place.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Ann Murray.