Battling the ash borer: A look at the plan to contain invader ravaging Berkshire trees

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PITTSFIELD — State foresters can't stop the emerald ash borer, they can only hope to contain the killer insect rapidly ravishing white ash in Western Massachusetts.

With the Berkshires ground zero for the invasive bug, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is looking to selectively remove dead or dying ash from along public roads passing through DCR lands within the Berkshire Forestry District from the New York border to the Connecticut River. The ash borer was first detected in Dalton five years ago and has since radiated throughout the county, spreading eastward. The Berkshire region has the state's largest concentration of ash trees.

If successful, the proposed logging work should slow the spread of the ash borer, remove the liability of dead trees falling on the roadways and salvage usable ash for lumber, firewood and pulp.

The program would pay for itself through the proceeds from loggers who bid on the timber lots, according to the DCR.

"While the trees still have value, we can harvest them," said Bill Hill, DCR's management forestry program supervisor.

Hill and other foresters last week unveiled the plan-of-attack on the ash borer, one they hope their agency's leadership will approve later this year so harvesting can begin in the most infested areas. DCR has confirmed the emerald ash borer presence in October Mountain State Forest, Pittsfield State Forest — the two largest in the commonwealth — Wahconah Falls State Park and the DCR South Mountain Regional Headquarters of South Street in Pittsfield. The infectious insect is also highly suspected of starting to eat away at ash stands on Mount Greylock Reservation.

DCR foresters will prioritize the areas of most concern, once they take an inventory and survey of the at-risk ash stands.

"We're going to weigh on the heavily used roads; they will take precedence," said forester Kevin Podkowka.

DCR estimates more than 6,500 acres with high risk ash adjoin state and municipally-owned public roads. The agency would work closely with cities and towns regarding and tree removal along their roadways.

Only dead ash trees or those in imminent danger of dying will be removed gradually over time in ongoing effort to keep the borer in check, DCR officials said. Clear cutting is out of the question as sapling and pole-size ash will remain in hopes they will survive the bad bug and populate future forest stands.

The project will focus on hardwood stands along roughly 176 miles of public roads and trails winding through DCR properties.

"It's going to be impossible to reach every mile," said forester Kristopher Massini.

The hardwood harvesting is DCR's latest pro-active measure in a race to protect ash stands. The Eagle reported in December that state foresters began inoculating noteworthy ash trees on public land and releasing two types of wasps that feast on the emerald ash borer eggs or larvae.

The female borer can lay 30-60 eggs on average with a maximum of 200. Once deposited in the bark, the larvae chew into the tree and begin feeding on the ash tree, leaving a hidden, meandering path of grooves in the wood layers. After a year, the borer exits the tree through a D-shaped hole to start feeding on the foliage.

"Virtually every ash tree infected by the borer will die [within 3-5 years,]" Hill noted.

Emerald ash borer immigrated to the U.S. from China via shipping materials first found in Michigan and Ontario, Canada in 2002. The grasshopper-like insect has few natural predators in North America and generally goes after already weak or stressed trees.

The borer has killed hundreds of millions of as trees in 30 states over the past 17 years. A study published last year in Ecological Applications estimated that the borer could inflict $12.7 billion in damage by 2020.

Reach staff write Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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