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On the defensive as ash borers attack in Western New York

Judy Niemira can’t imagine her backyard without the majestic ash trees. So the East Amherst woman invested $1,300 to protect eight of them from the emerald ash borer.

The ravenous beetles have infested thousands of ash trees in Western New York.

“All of these trees had leaves on them last year, and now there are very few leaves on any one tree out there,” she said.

Across Western New York, a lot of trees look like hers.

One of every five trees in Erie County is an ash, and they number an estimated 24.4 million, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

And every one is at risk. Ten percent of the trees will be infected by the emerald ash borer, a green beetle native to Asia that feeds on ash trees.

Once infected, the trees will die if left untreated, and they may not survive even with treatment.

That has property owners and arborists throughout Western New York working to protect the ash trees.

“Every ash will be affected,” said David Paradowski, regional forester at the DEC. “There is no escaping it. If you want to save your tree you must treat it. You’ll need to spend money every two years for the life of the tree.”

Joan Forster, who lives across from Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, spent $200 to protect her century-old ash tree, whose canopy dominates the corner of 14th Street and Porter Avenue.

“My Japanese lilac tree was sick, and the arborist said there wasn’t much I could do for it,” Forster said. “But then he pointed to the ash tree. He said he already had cut down 800 trees. He drilled holes into the bark and treated it. Mine was saved.”

The emerald ash borer sort of sneaks up on you, moving on average 5 miles each year – faster if there are no ash trees in the area, experts say.

“It can be in the tree and the tree won’t show anything until it is dead,” Paradowski said. “It’s not like storm damage.”

The borer first emerged in Erie County in 2011 in two areas – one in Lancaster near the airport and a second in South Park on the grounds of the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens.

In 2014, the infestation soared.

“It didn’t happen overnight. We just weren’t seeing it,” said Sharon Bachman, community educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, who heads the Emerald Ash Borer Task Force for Western New York. “We knew it was on the edge of Clarence in spring. By summer, it erupted, and it seemed to move rapidly through the Newstead area.”

The ash borer arrived unceremoniously in 2002, nestled in wooden shipping pallets bearing car parts to Detroit from China. It didn’t take long for the borer to start its deadly crawl, killing ash trees in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa before heading east. The emerald ash borer is responsible for killing an estimated 50 million ash trees in the United States and Canada.

Potential ash extinction

The ash crisis has even hit Major League Baseball. Ash trees from large tracts of land in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Michigan are used to make baseball bats, said Greg Sojka of Greg’s Tree Service.

“Louisville Sluggers’ main supply of ash was in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Now, they are experimenting with maple black walnut, but it doesn’t react the same with the ball because it doesn’t have the same grain.”

The borer was first noticed in New York State in 2006 in Randolph, a rural town 50 miles south of Buffalo. As of May 2015, the largest pockets of infestation in the state were in the areas surrounding Buffalo, Rochester and Albany and also the Mid-Hudson region.

The dead trees stick out from the surrounding vegetation like “long brown fingers,” said one arborist.

They are impossible to miss.

Some 400 to 500 dead ash trees line the northbound Route 400 starting at Transit Road. On westbound Interstate 90 at the William Street exit, a stand of dead ash threatens the safety of motorists, said Nick Trombetto, forester and operation manager at Buffalo Landscape Treatment.

“All of these trees are dead. They are 50 feet tall, and if they snap, they may fall and kill someone,” Trombetto said. “If you’re driving down Transit Road at Pleasantview, look to the west for a wooded section. Those trees are dead, too, and will snap in the wind. That’s nature taking care of itself.”

On Como Park Boulevard in Cheektowaga, homeowner Mark Kozminski counted 250 dead ash trees on his 3 acres of property between Borden and Union roads.

“I knew they were sick, but I didn’t realize how many there were,” Kozminski said. “Usually I have 10 a year cut down for firewood. It was more devastating to my wife because she likes the wooded lot. I called around to the county and town for help. It’s going to cost me crazy money.”

Sojka estimated the cost for taking down 250 trees at $15,000 to $20,000.

The October Surprise snowstorm of 2006 “hit a lot of trees, but the emerald ash borer targets only one species,” Sojka said. “It will be extinct.”

Each May, female borers lay 100 eggs, Bachman said. The larvae bore through the tree bark and into the cambium – the area between the bark and the tree – where nutrient levels are high. For several weeks from late July through October, they hunker down and eat, slowly cutting off the tree’s nutrients. Finally the tree’s leaves turn brown and fall off, stripping branches bare.

“It takes from six months to a couple of years for an ash to die,” Sojka said. “When they die, they are very brittle and become unstable quickly. The tree is actually drying out as it stands. It’s like becoming aged firewood.”

Injection is safest treatment

Treatments can be administered with a variety of methods, but many experts agree that tree injection is the safest for delivering pesticide.

“There’s no contamination because there is nothing airborne and nothing in the soil,” said Daniel Riley, general crew chief in the Parks and Forestry Division of the Amherst Highway Department.

“It’s just like giving a human an injection, but you basically use an air gun. The treatment can be absorbed in 5 to 10 minutes, but rain and cold slow it down. Early morning is best. By 2 p.m., the trees shut down – almost like taking a siesta.”

A phone survey of area arborists put the cost of removing one tree at $800, depending on size and location. On average, treatments range from $100 to $350, depending again on size. As a rule, an infected ash tree with a minimum of 30 percent of its canopy remaining has a good chance of survival if treated.

One homeowner in the Town of Concord treated his ash trees last spring by putting a pesticide mixture into the ground surrounding the tree. Stan Grabowski, a trained arborist who now works as a district manager for an insurance group, plans to apply the same treatment every other year.

“Each homeowner must make the decision themselves whether to treat, and then whether to do it yourself or hire a professional. I did the research and I thought it wasn’t too difficult,” Grabowski said.

In 2011, when the bold borer emerged on the grounds of South Park near the Botanical Gardens, Olmsted Parks Conservancy arborists took action that experts credit with stalling the disease’s progress two years.

The management theory was called SLAM – Slow Ash Mortality, said Olmsted arborist Shane Daly. “We followed DEC’s forest health technique to slow the spread,” Daly said. “You basically can’t stop it from spreading, but you can slow the rate by targeting trees for it to attack.”

This is done by baring an 8-inch strip of bark around the tree, a method called girdling. It serves as a welcome mat and invites adult borers to lay eggs and launch the cycle of infection.

Throughout the six Olmsted Parks in the city, arborists are fighting to save 150 ash trees.

Quarantines have been imposed by the DEC in areas of infestation. The DEC has designated much of Erie County along with southern Niagara County as a severe risk area where restrictions are imposed on the movement of firewood and the disposal of infected trees and their byproducts. Because the borer does not travel far on its own, limiting human movement of potentially infested material will slow its spread.

“But that doesn’t slow the spread of the beetle itself,” Paderowski said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has even turned to biocontrol to stop the borer by releasing predatory wasps in Randolph, the Hudson Valley and also the Lancaster-Cheektowaga area.

“I’m hearing encouraging reports on biocontrol, but it’s a long-term process,” Bachman said. “We currently have a three-month study to monitor the biocontrol program.”

‘Like the bubonic plague’

Paul Maurer of Re-Tree WNY recalled taking an ash tree inventory recently on Delaware Avenue to tag dead trees. “From Gates Circle inbound, all those trees are starting to go,” said Maurer, chairman of the organization that has planted more than 27,000 trees.

“We had a number of people contact us about the loss of their ash tree. I don’t know how we’re going to keep up with the demand.”

A seed-collection program has been launched at Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. Volunteers learn about the different species of ash, various methods of seed collection and the importance of collecting seed from multiple regions.

A workshop hosted by the U.S. Forest Service and the Mid-Atlantic Seed Bank will take place from 1 and 4 p.m. Saturday at Buckaloons Campground in Warren, Pa.

The long-term, temperature-controlled storage of ash seeds is similar to the effort used to reintroduce the American chestnut tree to the hardwood tree mix, Bachman said.

“We’re going to lose this species unless they create a hybrid that’s immune to the borer,” Sojka said.

“It’s like the bubonic plague.”