Behind the bark of some ash trees in Albany County is an invasive species that goes unnoticed by most, but within a few years the damage could be staggering.
The emerald ash borer, or EAB, has already been confirmed at more than 20 locations in the county and without proactive treatments it will only spread further, according to environmental experts.
The majority of confirmed infestations are in the southwestern portion of the Town of Bethlehem south of the railroad tracks, with three confirmed sightings across the border in the Town of Coeymans. Though the problem is isolated now, experts advise the best offense is a good defense.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County on Tuesday, June 25, hosted Mark Whitmore, a forest entomologist at the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, for a presentation on updated information about emerald ash borer infestations and what communities can do to address them.
According to Whitmore, the time for action from municipalities and property owners isn’t forthcoming – it should already be underway.
“Right now, they should be looking at all public infrastructure and property and determining where the ash (trees) are, that way they know their liabilities,” Whitmore said. “Once they know their liabilities, they can begin … developing management decisions and priorities.”
Whitmore also spoke in April at the county Cooperative Extension to address emerald ash borer concerns, but a contingent from the University of Vermont Extension was interested in hearing his presentation now. Around 80 people attended the April meeting.
Mary Jane Hughes, recourse educator of the county Cooperative Extension, said the Vermont group and Whitmore decided to meet at the Voorheesville office because it was about an equal drive for both. Local officials and community members were also welcomed at the presentation.
Before heading back home, the Vermont group and local attendees visited an emerald ash borer infestation located on private property off West Yard Road in Bethlehem. The extension has permission from the landowner to bring groups for educational purposes.
Infestation signs were easily spotted, with large portions of bark stripped from several ash trees set back from the road. Woodpeckers feed on EAB larva underneath the bark, leaving the exposed trees, but less frenetic feeding might only leave holes in the bark.
Once a woodpecker has stripped a tree, it is too late to save it.
“The really heavy symptomatic trees are here at the core, but it has already gone further from here and that is the thing to think about,” Whitmore said.
Many of the trees at the core of the Bethlehem infestation, despite being in a low-Tier II infestation, could be saved, according to Whitmore.
“A lot of these trees if you treated them right now … you could probably save them if you wanted,” Whitmore said. “From what I have seen in the Midwest it is really remarkable. It is better to be way out ahead of it, but you can be lazy and wait to the last minute as well.”
Local response wanting
Bethlehem Town Supervisor John Clarkson wasn’t aware of any measures being taken by the town to control the beetle. Clarkson said the local infestation is not something the town oversees, but he is aware of the issue.
Treating trees with insecticides is a common preventative measure, but it’s unclear if Bethlehem has this option. The town has a policy against using pesticides for certain applications, but Clarkson said the town’s Pest Management Committee can grant exceptions. The chapter on pesticides was added to the town code in 1998, with several additions and amendments made in 2007.
Clarkson said the state Department of Environmental Conservation has not reached out to him regarding the emerald ash borer infestation.
“It is a new issue to me in terms of town action,” Clarkson said.
But Hughes said she has gotten “very little” response from local officials.
“If we ignore it, all the ash trees are going to die in not that many years,” she said. “We are in an ash area that has a lot of ash.”
Last year, Hughes surveyed Bethlehem’s parks for the beetle during July and August after getting from the town Parks Department. This year, she sent information to the town about the two workshops.
Hughes was pleased with attendance at the April workshop, with around 80 people attending. There were also some town Highway employees at the recent presentation.
Hughes, who retired Friday, June 28, said she would be continuing to work on the issue locally. Whitmore emphasized time is of the essence.
“You just don’t know what you got until it’s gone and that’s the biggest problem I’ve been dealing with throughout the state,” he said. “Once you got it, it works fast.”
Infestation spreads rapidly
Pointing to trees showing signs of the emerald ash borer just off the road at the Bethlehem site, Whitmore estimated they would be dead in a year.
“This is really just starting and it’s expanding, so the symptomatic trees … they are restricted really close to where we feel it might have gotten started next to the railroad yard,” he said, “but I’d be willing to bet it is probably five miles away from here.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation in October 2011 confirmed the first discovery of the metallic green beetle in Albany County near the CSX rail yard in Selkirk. This initial sighting was close to where group investigated at the recent workshop.
The first confirmed report of the beetle in New York state was in June 2009 in Cattaraugus County off of Exit 16 on I-86. In 2002, the invasive species was initially discovered in the U.S. near Detroit, Mich. The United States Department of Agriculture believes it likely arrived in solid wood packing materials brought into the country from Asia.
The U.S. Forest Service in its 2012 New York Forest Health Highlights report said emerald ash borer is “currently the most significant invasive insect species in the state.”
Whitmore said viewing an infestation firsthand can be best learning experience.
“Seeing the infestation is going to say much more than I can say,” he said. “This is a whole new ballgame that we are facing right now. … The emerald ash borer is going to change the face of our forests.”
Before the group even entered the wooded area in Bethlehem on Tuesday afternoon, the tiny beetle was spotted.
“I get off the bus and bam, there was one right in my face,” said Rhonda Mace, part of the group from Vermont. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t think it was that probable.”
As the group went into the forest, the less visible signs of infestation became apparent as drawknives were used to cut the bark off the trees, a process also known as girdling.
This bark stripping exposed larvae feeding galleries on several trees, with some trees having extensive winding “S” shaped pathways. There were even a few larvae inside the trees discovered by the group.
Costs of action, inaction
While local governments are facing tough times, Whitmore contends the cost of inaction is far higher than the cost of proactive management.
Whitmore estimated the cost of removing an ash tree killed by an infestation at around $300. Treatment spreads more modest costs out over the long term.
Whitmore believes it is “human nature” that the problem doesn’t sink in with people until they see dead trees. Locally, he said there isn’t “a lot of mortality” yet.
“By the time (communities) realize they have a problem they have all these dead trees to look at,” he said. “So many urban foresters I have spoken with are so frustrated. They knew it was happening … but the people who make the decisions … didn’t realize it until there was a certain percentage (of dead trees).”
Costs to combat impacts are usually borne by property owners and local municipalities, he said.
Whitmore said he worked with National Grid to calculate the economic impact of an infestation along the company’s transmission lines.
National Grid estimated there is around 106,000 miles of transmission lines to maintain statewide, containing approximately 242 trees per mile. Of the 26 million trees along the lines, Whitmore said a “conservative estimate” is 20 percent are ash trees.
At 5 million ash trees, with $300 per each removal, taxpayers statewide could be facing a $1.5 billion bill in the worst-case scenario. The trees would also pose threats to damaging power lines if they fell down.
Ash trees, including the white, green and black species, account for around 8 percent of all trees in the state, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency estimates “the annual contribution of forest-based manufacturing and forest related recreation and tourism” to the state economy is more than $9 billion.
For information on how to identify emerald ash borer in a tree, what measures homeowners can take to treat trees, biological controls that can be implemented and other resources, visit nyis.info/eab. To report a possible sighting you can call the state DEC EAB Hotline at (866) 640-0652.