State's ash trees in danger of extinction

Destructive beetle found in Cranberry poses risk to hardwood

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The first evidence of the expected demise of Pennsylvania's ash tree population was found this week by two young women, college students serving as summer interns for the state Department of Agriculture.


Rebecca Droke, Post-GazetteSven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, addresses a meeting yesterday about the Emerald Ash Borer, an invading beetle that threatens Pennsylvania's population of ash trees.
Click photo for larger image.

Working as a team, they were searching along the Pennsylvania Turnpike for signs of the emerald ash borer, a tiny destructive beetle that has wiped out more than 20 million ash trees in five states. Tired, the interns pulled off the highway in Cranberry, where they saw signs that the insect had infested an ash tree on the lot of a First National Bank.

As they surveyed the damage, one of the women suddenly touched the arm of the other.

"Amber, stand still," she said. "There's one on your back."

Their find triggered a massive intergovernmental and agricultural industry effort to save the state's ash trees for as long as possible.

But there isn't much hope.

The emerald ash borer, whose larvae feed inside the bark of ash trees, has no natural enemies and experts have no idea how to kill it. Sprays and traps have proved ineffective.

Fortunately, its diet is limited to ash trees and it poses no health threat to humans or animals.

U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts accurately predicted that the beetle, a native of Asia that was first found in Michigan in July 2002, would reach Pennsylvania within five years.

Those same projections indicate that the state's 3 million ash trees, valued at $760 million, will be destroyed within 12 years.

"I'm afraid this beetle is here to stay. It's just a matter of time," Sven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture, said at a news conference yesterday in Cranberry.

As soon as the pest was discovered near the Interstate 79/turnpike connector, state officials -- acting on a game plan they'd already mapped out -- ordered a quarantine of Allegheny, Butler, Beaver and Lawrence counties, restricting the transportation of ash tree material and firewood. More than 20 inspectors, armed with nets, have spent the past two days combing grids within five miles of the first infestation in Cranberry.

They've found thousands of the beetles.

"We know the whole area is pretty bad right now," Mr. Spichiger said. "Our best hope here is to strictly enforce the quarantine and slow down the spread in order to give those ahead of the infested area time to make intelligent alterations to their landscape."

Those alterations, he said, would involve the removal of ash trees.

"If you have 3-foot ash trees now, it might be a good idea to get them down now while you can still handle it," he said, "before you have to pay hundreds to have a 60-foot ash tree removed later."

Residents and business owners attending yesterday's news conference brought more than just questions and concerns to the session. Some came clutching twigs pulled from the trees on their property, hoping the experts could allay their fears.

"I've got trees with branches dying at the top," said Sam Manuel, who lives on La Grande Drive in Cranberry, less than a mile from the first beetle find. "The bark has marks, and I've got a thousand holes in there. I thought it was woodpeckers."

Jay Jay Manuel, his wife, asked state officials who would pay for the cutting and removal of damaged trees.

Generally, she was told, the cost falls on the property owners.

"It's their expense," said Walt Blosser of the state Department of Agriculture. "And trees that are attacked will eventually die and will present themselves as hazard trees to property owners. They will have to come down."

Representatives of state and federal elected officials said that millions of dollars in emergency funds have been requested, but much of that money will have to be used to battle the pest.

Mr. Blosser said that the strategy for fighting the beetle in the other states -- Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Maryland -- has been to clear-cut ash trees within a half-mile of wherever it is found. It's a costly effort, he said, and it hasn't stopped the spread.

State Agricultural Secretary Dennis Wolff said Maryland has spent almost $5 million trying to kill the beetle, to no avail.

Coanne O'Hearn of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said experts in Pennsylvania are looking at the experiences of the other states in an effort to figure out what to do. First, however, the survey of the trees in the four quarantined counties must be completed.

"Until we have all the data in and can map out where it is and the extent of the infestation, we will not be taking down ash trees," she said. "Right now, we're trying to find out where [the beetle] is, limit the population as best we can with the people that we have, the money that we have. Then we will make a decision."

One of the priorities, she said, will be removing ash trees from along roadsides, where the trees have been planted because of their natural resistance to road salt. The state cannot afford to have dead trees where they might fall into traffic or across wires.

In an attempt to slow the beetle's spread, campers are being told not to transport firewood.

"Our main concern is in the state parks and forest systems," said James Grace, deputy secretary for state parks and forestry with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "We're asking people not to move firewood. It's unbelievable how many people who go camping take their firewood with them, and it's been the main cause of the spread of this insect pest and a number of others."

The quarantine is especially bad news for businessmen like Fred Kison, owner of Four Seasons Firewood Service in Cranberry. While he would not be fined for selling firewood to someone who takes it out of the quarantine area -- campers would be held responsible -- the restrictions are complicated and costly.

"I'm sure that there are lots of folks that would just as soon get out of the firewood business rather than comply with a lot of regulations, but I would rather comply," he said. "For right now, it's survivable. Right now, I have to tell people I'm running an ash-free facility."

Mr. Spichiger said the death of Pennsylvania's ash trees, like the American chestnut trees that were wiped out by an Asian fungus decades ago, is almost inevitable. But there still might be hope.

"Perhaps if we can slow [the beetle], the research that is already in the chute may catch up with it," he said.


Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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