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Emerald ash borer forces big decisions for Vermont towns

A tree with tape around it reading ASH TREE AT RISK
The emerald ash borer can be slowed, but not stopped, in eliminating most ash trees.

It’s been six years since the emerald ash borer was first spotted in Vermont. The bugs’ larvae eat through the inside of ash trees, disrupting their circulatory systems and ultimately killing them.

Some towns have been dealing with the emerald ash borer for years, while others await the inevitable bad news. Once the telltale signs of an infestation are visible — S-shaped tunnels beneath the outer bark, D-shaped exit holes on the bark’s surface — it’s usually too late to save a tree. If its collapse poses a danger to people or property, it needs to be removed.

It is possible to ward off an infestation with an injectable insecticide, but it can only be injected by a certified applicator, must be reapplied every 1-2 years, and can be expensive, making it hard to justify except on the oldest and most beloved ash trees. Some towns, like Rutland, are able to preserve their trees without breaking the budget because they have an arborist on staff, said Elise Schadler, program manager of the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program.

Towns across the state have varied in how they approach the emerald ash borer, Schadler said. Some towns have been proactive, inventorying their ash trees and planning years in advance of an infestation, but for others — particularly smaller towns — the emerald ash borer is just another problem requiring money they don’t have.

Essex Junction is in the proactive category. The city published a management plan years before the bug made its way there, and has been preparing since then.

Nick Meyer, chair of Essex Junction’s Tree Advisory Committee, said most of the city’s ash trees are located in the city’s southwest quadrant. These areas were developed at a time when ash was seen as a good alternative to elm, populations of which had been decimated by Dutch elm disease.

Earlier this year, Meyer and the city’s tree warden, Warren Spinner, found the first signs of an infestation in the city, on a street lined with 30-year-old ash trees.

“It’s a beautiful canopy,” Meyer said. “But they are going to die.”

The city’s approach for the past four years, Meyer said, has been to remove ash trees, replanting with a different species, and then also interplanting — planting other species of tree nearby in case one species falls prey to a disease or parasite, like the emerald ash borer or Dutch elm disease.

Spreading out tree removals and replantings over years — and doing it before the arrival of the emerald ash borer — doesn’t just help with budgeting. It also makes the inevitable transition away from an ash canopy a bit less jarring.

“If we just let them go and then have to cut them all down at once, it’s going to be pretty startling to see those neighborhoods,” Meyer said.

With some trees already infested, the city now needs to speed things up. And it has some help — a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, administered by the state Urban and Community Forestry Program.

In total, VT UCFP has administered almost $400,000 in grants from the Forest Service for everything from tree removal to management plans over the past six years, said Schadler, the program manager.

On the other side of the state, the town of Orange, with one-tenth the population of Essex Junction, is taking things as they come. George Wild, one of the town’s tree wardens, said the town select board hasn’t yet decided on what to do with trees ravaged by the emerald ash borer.

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Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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