NY must try harder to stop emerald ash borer

The emerald ash borer alone has the potential to cause $12.7 billion in damage to U.S. trees by 2020, according to a peer-reviewed study this year by more than a dozen experts. (Photo provided)

Five prominent species of ash tree in the eastern U.S. have been driven to the brink of extinction from years of lethal attack by the emerald ash borer. Tens of millions of trees in the U.S. and Canada have already succumbed, and the toll may eventually reach more than 8 billion, the International Union for Conservation of Nature recently reported.

Now the emerald ash borer has been found close to home in northern Franklin County, by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Forestry Resources Program and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. The state Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed that the beetles have been found in St. Lawrence County, too. Tribal officials note that emerald ash borers were confirmed across the river in Cornwall, Ontario, in 2013, suggesting they may have come here from there.

Ash trees are a major part of our forests, parks and neighborhoods, adding yellow and purplish leaves to the bounty of fall colors. Their timber is used for making furniture and sports equipment such as baseball bats and hockey sticks.

The rampage of the emerald ash borer is traced to the late 1990s, when it arrived from Asia in wood used in shipping pallets that showed up in Michigan. Asian trees have evolved defenses against the insect, but North America presented it with vulnerable trees and no natural predators. Scientists have classified five species of trees as critically endangered — meaning they are facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. The change appears on the IUCN’s Red List, considered by scientists the official index of what animals and plants are in danger of disappearing. The species are the white, green, black, pumpkin and blue ash. A sixth species, the Carolina ash, was put in the less serious category of “endangered” because it might find some refuge from the infestation in the southern part of its range, which includes Florida, Texas and Cuba.

White ash is the variety that is common in the Adirondacks.

In Western New York’s Chautauqua County, where ash trees are being hit hard by these beetles, Jeff Brockelbank, a senior DEC forester and member of the Forest Pest Task Force, recently noted two problems: a lack of money to have an infested trees chipped on site, and difficulty coordinating with various municipalities because many municipalities don’t have anyone in charge of trees. He said it’s hard to create a cohesive communal network in Chautauqua and the surrounding counties when many municipalities don’t inventory their trees or track the presence of pests.

Past approaches to controlling the emerald ash borer haven’t worked. It’s time to have a coordinated statewide effort to deal with the invasive pest’s presence in New York state with enough aid to help cash-strapped local organizations assess and deal with the damage.