Beetle poses dire threat

Gary Lowry admires one of the ash trees that would be destroyed on his Reed Road property to deal with the emerald ash borer. Mr. Lowry feels the state is overreacting and says he is prepared to take court action to preserve the trees.
Gary Lowry admires one of the ash trees that would be destroyed on his Reed Road property to deal with the emerald ash borer. Mr. Lowry feels the state is overreacting and says he is prepared to take court action to preserve the trees.

The Asian beetle that has infested an estimated 50 to 100 ash trees in southwestern Lucas County as well as hundreds of others in southeastern Michigan and in Ontario is one of nature's tiniest bugs.

But the destruction it can wreak on ash trees from the inside out has some biologists calling the emerald ash borer one of the most dangerous insects they've ever seen.

Tom Harrison, a plant pathologist with the Ohio Department of Agriculture for 20-plus years and the head of a state task force created to address the emerald ash borer, said the insect could destroy billions of ash trees throughout Ohio and the rest of the nation.

About the only saving grace is that the metallic green pest - smaller than most human thumbnails - confines itself to that type of trees, he said.

The discovery near Whitehouse in February was Ohio's first.

To appreciate the magnitude of the problem, consider this: Michigan has just requested $17 million in federal emergency funds to combat the emerald ash borer in six southeastern counties which have been under quarantine since last summer: Monroe, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne.

Michigan's outbreak was the first documented in the United States. The only other place where this beetle has been found is across the international border in neighboring southern Ontario's Essex County, where Canadians are engaged in their own campaign to eradicate it to preserve that country's ash tree stands.

Though ash is not as coveted as oak, it means billions of dollars to the North America economy. Its wood is used to make anything from baseball bats to cabinets to wood flooring.

Ohio officials told The Blade they are under the gun to do something now in response to the Whitehouse sighting, before the bug can spread to other parts of the state.

Their proposal: Clear-cutting as many as 2,700 privately owned trees in the Whitehouse area, then applying an insecticide to about 300 trees around the perimeter. The plan is akin to a biological firebreak, with the chemical treatment used to ward off any stray beetles that might make it through.

Property owners in the affected area were to be notified last week about the plan. A meeting to answer questions has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Buehner Center in Oak Openings Metropark.

Several residents - although stunned and saddened by the upcoming loss of trees - appear willing to cooperate with the proposal in hopes that their sacrifice will stop the spread of the insect in the Buckeye state, said Melanie Wilt, an Ohio Agriculture Department spokesman.

But some residents in the affected area, including Gary Lowry, question whether the state is overreacting.

“I'm not going to stand by and just let them do it,” said Mr. Lowry, who added that he is prepared to obtain a court injunction to protect trees on 5.6 acres he owns along Reed Road.

“Once they clear-cut this, you'll see right through my woods,” he said. “I have ash trees that take two people to get their arms around. I'll never see ash trees like that on my property again in my lifetime.”

All told, Mr. Lowry said he has about 3,000 trees on his site.

Ms. Wilt said a recent state survey shows 122 of them are ash trees which could end up being among the group of 2,700 trees targeted for elimination in the Whitehouse area.

“I completely understand why a homeowner would be upset. They have the absolute right to be upset and contest our actions,” she said. “There's a sentimental loss that no amount of money or compensation can replace.”

In terms of compensation, the state is offering none.

That doesn't sit well with Mr. Lowry, who questions why an insecticide used for controlling the spread of the beetle's larvae can't be tried out first on the healthy trees.

State tree experts in Ohio and Michigan have said the insecticide - sold under brand names with the active ingredient imida cloprid - is useless on infested trees.

“By the time we wait and see, it's too late. We believe we're taking the appropriate action to prevent a widespread problem,” Ms. Wilt said.

To see how much havoc the emerald ash borer can wreak on forestland, look no farther than right up I-75 in Michigan. That state has 700 million ash trees, of which 28 million are in the six-county quarantined area.

Ohio has more than five times as many ash trees: A whopping 3.8 billion.

Michigan has spent at least $1 million since last summer, but that's a drop in the bucket to what it expects to spend: An incredible $350 million through 2015, according to Sara Linsmeier-Wurfel, Michigan Department of Agriculture spokesman.

Ohio's outbreak prompted Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm to issue a statement recently in which she said it is “even more imperative that we act quickly and decisively” to keep the beetle from spreading to other states.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman, Ms. Granholm urged the release of more federal aid “to bear on this emergency.”

“If left unchecked, the [emerald ash borer] will infest and destroy the native and landscape ash resource of Michigan, the nation, and potentially the continent, removing the ash tree from our ecosystem,” the Michigan governor wrote.

Experts believe the beetle hitched its ride to North America aboard some lumber or other wood product from Asia. Although not discovered until last summer, scientists believe it could have arrived as far back as five years ago.

Michigan has been burning its infested trees out of fear that cutting them up into firewood or other products would be counterproductive and spread the larvae.

Ohio is expected to follow suit.

Paranoia about the beetle runs so deep among the Ohio task force that officials are even second-guessing themselves over their initial plan for mulching trees into one-inch wood chips. They question whether the trees should be chopped into even finer bits - even if it drives up costs - to make sure no larvae or beetles survive. They may also require that stumps be removed, ground up, and burned.

The cost for the massive project near Whitehouse is unknown. Some $200,000 in federal money has been obtained, but it's anybody's guess if that will be enough, Mr. Harrison said.

He said officials are battling the clock. Larvae known to exist on five parcels of land in the Whitehouse area will evolve into adulthood as beetles and eat their way through bark on or about May 15. After that, all bets are off: It'd be a wild goose chase trying to catch up to the scurrying beetles to keep them from moving on to other trees and starting a new generation of bugs.

Emerald ash borers have a range of about a quarter-mile. The Ohio task force is fairly confident it has identified the parameters of the Whitehouse-area infestation as a result of an intensive, half-mile survey.