If you want to help keep the emerald ash borer out of New York, don't bring in firewood from other states.
An invasive insect species that has attacked ash trees across the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Ohio and now Pennsylvania has not reached New York — yet.
But Russell Welser of Ontario County Cornell Cooperative Extension said that it's just a "matter of time" before the emerald ash borer makes its way into this area.
The borers, native to Asia, feast on ash trees from the inside out. Larvae gnaw intricate tunnels in the phloem tissue just under the bark, disrupting water and nutrient transport and killing a tree in as little as two or three years. The larvae can be difficult to spot, and adult borers often appear only after a tree is already infested, according to a state Department of Environmental Conservation fact sheet.
An infested tree will die from the top down, and the bark may split revealing the tunnels or "galleries" underneath. Sometimes borers leave exit holes where the adults "eat their way out" of the tree, said Bruce Williamson, chief of the DEC Bureau of Private Land Services. Occasionally, small sprouts start to come off the tree below the damaged area, he said.
Several years of intensive insecticide treatments can restore a tree to health, according to a Bayer Crop Science best management practices report. But rather than treating infested trees, the DEC and partner agencies have focused on prevention and the rapid containment of infestations.
The ash borer was recently found near Pittsburgh, 75 miles from the New York border. First discovered in southeastern Michigan in 2002, the borer has also been found in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and southern Ontario. Though the insect does migrate, it is generally a weak flyer. Instead, the long-distance leaps across state boundaries have generally been blamed on the human transport of infested wood and trees, said Williamson. Though the borer can travel in a number of ash products, including lumber and shipping pallets, the biggest culprits are believed to be firewood and infested nursery stock, Welser said.
Damage is not limited to wilderness areas; in Detroit alone, 70,000 trees were lost to the emerald ash borer, according to DEC reports.
"These pests don't just like to go camping. They like to get into cities, too," said Williamson. Urban landscaping trends have yielded rows and rows of the same species of tree, which means an infestation can level a city's treescape. An earlier infestation known as Dutch elm disease took a devastating toll on the once-ubiquitous American elm. For that reason, the DEC encourages cities to diversify.
The worst-case scenario regarding the borer would be "that the (insect) migrates into New York state and we do not find it quickly," said state forester Robert Davies. "Our highest priority, and our mantra around here, is early action and rapid responses."
Knowing that the borer prefers trees that are already sick or distressed, researchers have set up pre-stressed "trap trees" on both state forest and private lands, hoping to learn more about what attracts the ash borer and how better to contain it. Control methods explored so far include chemicals and biological controls, such as a parasitic wasp, said Williamson.
When a tree is determined to have an infestation, the DEC removes it and all the host trees around it within an appropriate buffer area. "Those trees are typically chipped and burned," he said. Large areas — sometimes entire counties — are placed under quarantine, which means no export of any firewood or wood product of any kind from the affected areas.
"There's no silver bullet (cure) yet," said Williamson, which is why the DEC's focus has been on preventing the spread of borer larvae.
The borer is just one of many invasive insect species that spreads through the transport of infested firewood, said Yancey Roy of the DEC. The agency recently increased the efforts of a public outreach effort dubbed the "Don't Move Firewood" campaign, urging campgrounds to stick with local firewood.
This month, a trade organization called Campground Owners of New York distributed literature from the DEC to its members, owners of RV and tent campgrounds located across the state. At this point, the organization is "trying to control (the spread of invasives) without regulation," said Donald Bennett Jr., Executive Administrator of CONY.
Ken Hansen, owner of Bristol Woodlands Campground in Bristol, implemented a ban on imported firewood the day he received the information from CONY. He tells customers as they're making their reservations over the phone that they cannot bring in any of their own firewood. An on-site camp store sells "fire packets" of eight to 12 pieces of wood for $4 apiece. A typical campfire requires just one bundle, maybe two, said Jerry Interlicchia, who also works at the campground.
"We've got to try to do it in a nice way, so people aren't offended," Hansen said of enforcing the ban. "People need to be made aware," he said.
Beth Burgert, owner of the Flint Creek Campground outside Potter, had not heard about the ash borer specifically. She knew about the spread of pests through firewood. Though campers can still bring their own firewood to Flint Creek, a camp store there also sells $4 fire bundles, and those are made of hardwood grown right on site, Burgert said.
The DEC is looking into instituting a state-level regulatory ban on the transport of firewood, requiring instead the use of locally procured wood.
Ash comprises almost 8 percent of all the trees in New York, and its wood is used commercially in baseball bats, furniture, lumber and pallets, according to the DEC fact sheet.
More notably, "the ash tree is a very popular street tree in American suburbs," said Davies, and people would miss it.
"People become very attached to their trees," he said.
Hilary Smith can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.