By MICHAEL FRETT
ALBURGH – On a relatively humid Friday morning, Bill Baron popped open the tailgate of his truck and, with gloved hands, grabbed for a bundle of sticky, purple cardboard slabs.
Nearby, Al Crist tossed a string over a branch on a local ash tree, this one helping frame the parking lot to Alburgh’s public library. It took a few tries, but, eventually, a string snugly hung from the branch.
Baron peeled a sheet of cardboard from the bundle and bent it into a prism with its sticky side facing outward. A bag mimicking the smell of an adult emerald ash borer was dangled inside and Baron and Crist began hoisting the cardboard prism into the tree.
They also pinned a printout to the ash’s trunk, replacing one poster asking “what is this ash is worth to you” with a new sheet describing “the purple thing hanging in the tree” as necessary tool for local communities preparing for a “pest’s arrival.”
“I got to watch it come through Indiana for a number of years,” Crist, a Grand Isle resident, remarked. “By the time I left Northeastern Indiana, there were no ash left. I guess I get to see it happen again.”
Shaped like a bullet and smaller than the length of a dime, the emerald ash borer hardly looks like the kind of a threat warranting the organized response it has received. Most adults sport an emerald hue, hence the name, but otherwise look like a number of other beetles who might call Vermont home.
Those little beetles can cause a lot of damage, however. After their larva hatch, young emerald ash borers begin carving into the tree layers just below the bark, digging an S-shaped pattern that gradually cuts the tree off from nutrients and, after several years, starves the tree.
The S-shaped patterns woven beneath the bark are a telltale sign of the ash borer’s presence, as are the D-shaped holes adults leave in the wood once they have grown and are ready to leave the tree behind.
Scientists working with the U.S. Forest Service have observed infected ash trees dying at rates of nearly 100% in some infested parts of the Midwest. Vermont’s state agencies are warning 99% of the state’s ash are vulnerable due to the beetle’s arrival, saying as much on their traps’ accompanying posters.
The economic fallout from infestations of emerald ash borer have been collectively estimated to be somewhere in the range of billions of dollars, as states, towns and property owners are left with the expensive costs of treating surviving trees, removing dead ash and planting replacements.
There is also an irreparable cultural loss that could follow the disappearance of the ash tree. For many Native American cultures in the Northeastern U.S., including the Abenaki people who have historically called Vermont home, the ash tree can have irreplaceable religious and historical significance.
According to Baron, a retired forester and the head of Grand Isle County’s emerald ash borer task force, the Champlain Islands are uniquely vulnerable to the ash borer. Depending on the source, somewhere between 30% and 60% of the islands’ trees were one of several species of ash.
“If you look around here, there’s some green ash here, some green ash there,” Baron said as he and Crist hoisted another emerald ash borer trap, this time at the Islands in the Sun Senior Center. “This will have a dramatic effect in the islands.”
The fallout from those losses could be catastrophic ecologically. Nearly 300 insects and spiders rely on ash trees for food and shelter. Forty-four of those insects and spiders feed exclusively on the tree, according to an Agency of Natural Resources presentation.
There were also significant municipal costs Baron said towns may have to face as they remove dead ash from public roadsides in order to avoid incidents where ash, which can become fragile once it dies, could come crashing down atop motorists or pose other significant hazards on the road.
According to a Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program case study focused on South Hero, the county’s southernmost town could potentially have to spend between an $113,500 and $150,000 over the next decade to manage ash trees currently lining its roadways.
With partnerships with organizations like the Vermont Electric Cooperative and the state parks system, those costs could fall significantly, but South Hero will still be looking at potentially steep costs to remove ash trees from its town highways, according to Baron.
The town has started budgeting annually for removing ash trees, according to the case study.
As of press time, the emerald ash borer has now been found in four of Grand Isle County’s five towns. Both South Hero and North Hero have reported having at least one tree infected with emerald ash borer, and adult beetles have been found in purple traps on Isle La Motte and in Alburgh.
In nearby Franklin County, an adult emerald ash borer had also been observed near the Missisquoi Bay’s shoreline in Swanton.
The emerald ash borer task force, one of the few county-wide initiatives endorsed by each of its member towns, still warns against bringing firewood from outside of Vermont, an action seen to be the most effective way to prevent emerald ash borer’s spread, but the task force has also started pivoting more towards managing the beetle.
The county task force is now planning to offer services for connecting landowners to companies authorized to treat ash or information around disposing of emerald ash borer-infested trees.
The task force also recently wrapped up trainings around ash removal for local road crews, who will likely be trimming back their respective town’s ash populations as the emerald ash borer continues its slow crawl through the Champlain Islands over the next decade.
“Slowing the spread is important… but we also want to deal with the pest here,” Baron said.
That Friday morning, Baron and Crist traced major highways in and around the islands. In four of the islands’ five communities, purple traps were hoisted into tree canopies with the hope they would help measure the emerald ash borer’s presence in the islands and maybe spark a conversation.
The posters they pinned beneath each trap seemed to ask for as much.
“What is that purple thing hanging in the tree?” the posters, also provided by the state’s Agency of Agriculture and Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation, read.
“Ideally, we’d like to help the towns plan moving forward,” Crist said after raising a box in the Islands in the Sun Senior Center’s lawn. “We want to help them know what’s coming or soon to be coming.”
With that, the two left for Isle La Motte, where traps would be raised at the town’s recreation fields and on an ash looming in a landowner’s private trail, and from there to Grand Isle and South Hero.
Eight traps in all would be hoisted by Friday afternoon.