Maryland declares war on ash borer

Trees to be burned in bid to wipe out tiny beetle

March 13, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

In a race against the clock, state forestry officials will begin cutting down every ash tree in a 550-acre quarantined swath of Prince George's County next week and destroying the remains to stop the spread of a voracious Asian beetle.

The all-out assault on the tiny emerald ash borer is necessary to halt an infestation that has the potential to threaten 6 million ash trees in the greater Baltimore area, state officials say.

"The economic impact could be worse than gypsy moths," said Dr. Bill Gimpel of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It's staggering. It's an absolute mess. If I could get them all out today, I would."

Greenhouses and nurseries are the state's second-largest agricultural industry, doing $304 million in business annually.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that the losses from a severe beetle infestation could exceed $228 million in the Baltimore area alone.

State officials say they have to act before the beetle - now in its larval stage - emerges and mates.

"We want to be finished by April 15. We're in a situation now where every day counts," said Agriculture spokeswoman Sue duPont.

Inspectors have destroyed trees in Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties that were purchased from Ed's Plant World, a Brandywine nursery that unwittingly bought 121 infected trees last April and then sold them and other "exposed" ashes to landscapers and homeowners.

"They were being shipped out like little time bombs," said Mike Galvin of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Galvin and Gimpel said all but three of the 121 trees have been accounted for. They hope that destroying all ashes within a half-mile of the nursery will ensure that none of the borers escape.

Quarantine violated

The 1/2 -inch beetle hitchhiked into Maryland in two shipments of trees from a Tennessee nursery, which purchased them from a Michigan landscaper. That landscaper violated a state quarantine imposed to stop an infestation that has in two years destroyed 6 million ashes in the southeastern corner of the state.

Stuart Leve was fined $12,300 and ordered to pay the owner of Ed's Plant World $60,000 in restitution. The judge also left open the possibility that the landscaper could be held liable for Maryland's eradication costs.

The beetle, native to Asia, had never been found in North America until July 2002. Entomologists suspect it entered several years earlier in packing material for consumer products. Highly aggressive, the beetle quickly spread into Detroit and its suburbs and parts of Ohio and Windsor, Ontario.

The borer chews beneath the ash bark and disrupts the flow of water and nutrients to the tree. It leaves a "D"-shaped exit hole. Infestation is difficult to detect until the tree canopy begins to die. The beetles can kill a tree in two to three years.

Michigan officials quarantined 13 counties, putting up 5-by-10-foot highway signs warning against the transportation of firewood. Survey teams are visiting firewood dealers, saw mills, camp sites and new subdivisions to look for signs of the beetle.

"One of the toughest challenges is we know so very little about it," said Sara Linsmeier-Wurfel of the Michigan Department of Agriculture. "Scientists are working triple time and a half to learn as much as they can about the beetle's life cycle, how it moves and what its natural enemies might be."

Michigan has spent $14 million so far to combat the beetle and has asked the federal government for $42 million more.

The Maryland problem went undetected as a new generation of beetles hatched last spring and mated. Only a routine inspection of the nursery Aug. 28 by an Agriculture Department employee "raised the red flags," Galvin said.

Agriculture inspectors removed 389 ashes from the nursery and found that 71 had borer larvae. Then the race was on to retrieve the trees that had been sold.

"Unfortunately, in the nursery business, substitution is the rule rather than the exception. Landscapers order one type of tree and, based on supply, get a different kind. So records aren't always as accurate as you would like, especially in this case," Galvin said.

Inspectors recovered trees at 13 sites and found larvae in 15 trees. About 10 were planted near an elementary school in Fairfax, Va., forcing county officials to destroy 200 ashes in a residential area.

Now, Maryland officials are asking anyone who purchased an ash tree from Ed's between April 1 and Sept. 1 to call an Agriculture Department hot line.

"We've exhausted all our other avenues," said Gimpel. "We don't want to have a repeat of the Michigan situation here."

Slash and burn

Next week, crews will move into the half-mile buffer established around Ed's Plant World to begin destroying 570 ashes, some the diameter of a finger, others established shade trees.

They will cut the trees to below ground level and chip the wood into pieces no larger than an inch.

Then, "we're going to burn it," said Galvin. "We're going to destroy every bit of it. We don't want to be 99.999 percent sure. We want to be 100 percent sure."

Crews will plant "sentinel trees," new ashes around the perimeter, to act as an early warning signal of re-infestation.

Galvin said: "This action may seem drastic, but if this thing gets loose like wildfire, it could be one of the biggest natural disasters we have seen."

What to do

If you suspect a tree might be infested by the emerald ash borer, call the Maryland Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5920. More information: www.mdinvasivesp.org.

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