The emerald ash borer, a bright and narrow metallic green beetle, hasn't yet been spotted in Erie County, but Amherst officials already have begun drawing up plans for what to do when that destructive ash tree killer finally gets here.
"It's not a matter of if they're coming," said Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson, "it's when."
The beetle has already decimated ash tree populations in large swaths of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. It also has been spotted in neighboring counties, including Cattaraugus, Genesee and Monroe. The closest it has been found so far is in Welland, Ont.
Amherst officials estimate that the town has roughly 9,100 ash trees lining the streets, not including ash trees in town parks or roadway islands. The Ransom Oaks neighborhood in northeast Amherst has a huge number of such trees, Anderson said.
Certified arborist William A. Snyder said, "Since Amherst has such a high volume of ash trees, it's going to be devastating."
Balancing the need to protect town ash trees against the ongoing costs of keeping them healthy, Anderson told the Town Board at Monday's work session that his task force recommends removing ash trees already in poor health and treating ash trees that aren't too young or too old.
If the town were to cut down ash trees in poor health and replace them with new trees of a different species, it would be looking at spending about $166,500 to eliminate roughly 450 trees, Anderson said.
His task force also recommends that young ash trees with a diameter of 3 inches or less not be treated because they can easily be replaced.
Finally, the group recommended that mature ash trees with a diameter greater than 18 inches also go untreated, since these old trees are near the end of their growth cycle. Ash trees that are 20 inches in diameter are about 80 years old.
Council Member Guy Marlette questioned the idea of not treating the biggest trees, arguing that these old trees are the most coveted in neighborhoods.
"Most residents are going to look at the older, larger trees as the most cherished ones," Marlette said.
Snyder, who has done previous consulting work for the town, agreed with Marlette's assessment. He said the task force, however, felt obligated to consider an economical strategy for saving ash trees since it would be a taxpayer-funded expense. Both he and Anderson said the board is free to protect as many trees as it wants as long as it's willing to foot the bill.
Anderson estimated it might cost about $200 for each tree injected with pesticides, which could amount to more than $1 million. Williamsville village trustees previously estimated it might cost $100 to $150 to inject an ash tree with pesticide.
The cost to protect ash trees would be ongoing because the pesticide injection protects trees for only two to three years, Anderson said.
Council Member Barbara Nuchereno asked if residents might be able to buy into any town pesticide program and pay to inoculate ash trees on their private property. Anderson didn't say it was impossible, but he did say it would be "complicated."