City of Ithaca Prepares for Arrival of Invasive Ash Borer

Key Points:

  • Emerald ash borers are native to Asia and were brought to the United States about 14 years ago through lumber transport
  • North American ash trees are common in Ithaca and have no natural resistance to the beetle, and an infestation would mean 100 percent mortality
  • The City of Ithaca is currently surveying the treatment needs of publicly owned ash trees in preparation for a possible infestation, as well as beginning education and outreach to residents
  • So far, emerald ash borers have killed about 25 million ash trees and cost municipalities tens of millions of dollars in control measures

Ithaca College senior Otto Meilick spends his Mondays in the great outdoors, at an internship with the Friends of Conservation, Recreation and Environmental Stewardship. Meilick is currently surveying ash trees in Tompkins County as part of the action plan against a possible infestation of emerald ash borer, a damaging invasive beetle native to Asia.

His work involves age and size measurements of the trees, risk assessment and cost evaluation of treatment. This is in an effort to save as many of the species as possible when the infestation eventually occurs.

Melick said without the work organizations like FORCES are doing, the results would be devastating.

“Over in Taughannock [State Park] there are over 300 ash trees,” he said. “That’s half the trees that would be gone … it takes that picture away of having a nice sanctuary. When the bug comes in, it’s just going to kill everything.”

North American ash trees have no natural defense against the invasive ash borer, and millions have already been destroyed in the Midwest and Northeast.

Threats Facing Ithaca’s Ash Trees

Ithaca City Forester Jeanne Grace said most of the emerald ash borer movement they have seen has been a result of firewood transportation. She said in order to prevent the beetle’s spread to the Greater Ithaca area, people need to start being careful of what they move in and out.

“It’s not moving in a strict wave,” Grace said. “If you look at infestations in Central New York it’s spotty, and that’s because the main mode of transportation for them is human movement. It’s just a matter of time before it gets here.”

To add to the complication, ash borers are extremely small — about the size of a grain of rice. Grace said this makes it difficult to notice an infestation in its beginning phases.

“I just keep saying we don’t have a confirmed infestation here, because they could be here at a very low level,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to have this plan in place.”

Although tree death takes several years in the beginning phases of an infestation, Grace said when an ash borer population reaches a high enough level, a healthy tree could be killed within a year or two.

Combating Emerald Ash Borers

Grace said the insecticide recommended for city use, TREE-äge, is effective for three to four years after application. But due to its high cost the city has been advised to hold off on application until the ash borer population has been confirmed.

Nina Bassuk, chair of the Shade Tree Advisory Committee, said the main effort in the plan’s beginning phases is to reach out to Ithaca residents about ash trees on their own properties. She said some residential areas are heavily populated by the species and people need to look at possible treatment plans, whether that means relocation or insecticide treatment.

“They are often in people’s backyards and they need to know they have options, especially when the tree starts to die,” Bassuk said. “The cost of removal only gets higher, and if it starts dropping limbs that could get dangerous.”

The results of an ash borer infestation, she said, are disastrous.

“I saw the epicenter [of the infestation] in Detroit,” she said. “All the trees in the area were destroyed … it was devastating.”

Bassuk said public outreach will continue to intensify as the hatching season draws closer. In the meantime, the Ithaca City Parks Department and the Shade Tree Advisory Committee will continue surveying local ash tree populations.

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