The Emerald Ash Borer: Knocking at Maine’s Door

EAB_iconThe size of a pine nut with grass-blade wings and a disco shimmer, the elusive emerald ash borer (EAB) doesn’t look capable of destroying one tree, let alone upward of 150 million. But this comely green killer is poised to attack Maine’s ash population, having already decimated trees in the Midwest while moving rapidly east.

EAB is literally at Maine’s front door. The nearest confirmed “finds” place the insect 30 miles from Maine’s western border in both Quebec and Concord, NH with the Asian native predicted to arrive sometime within the next two years. Because the insect is hard to see and its larvae hidden, researchers say EAB may have already begun its Maine invasion. Larval offspring dwell just beneath the bark where they gorge on sapwood and bulldoze serpentine pathways into the trees’ vital lifelines.

The best Maine can hope for, researchers say, is an abbreviated invasion, in part due to research and initiatives launched by UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative’s EAB team, which is focused on black ash. The stakes are high: black ash, also referred to as brown ash, is the most important basket-making resource for Maine’s Wabanaki tribes. The baskets are the center of a spiritual tradition thousands of years old and a source of income for the tribes.

After spending years focused on preventative efforts, the EAB team’s focus has switched to the beetle’s arrival. Researchers are looking at methods to store wood and salvage seeds. The team will continue to map the state’s black ash population, searching for basket-quality trees and mulling possibilities for the longer-term goal of rerouting the insects away from valuable stands.

“This is the adaptation phase,” said graduate student Kara Lorion, a co-leader on three years of critical black ash fieldwork for the team. “This is about learning to live with the insect.”

It’s not an easy task. Researchers, for example, relied heavily on the public to help eradicate the invasive Asian longhorn beetle (ALB) across parts of the United States and Canada in the late 90s and 2000s. ALB is large, distinctive and easy to identify. Not so with EAB.

“The adults hang out in the tops of trees and are really hard to see unless you know what you’re looking for,” said Darren Ranco, EAB team leader, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of Native American Programs. “And once you find the pathways under the bark, the tree is not salvageable. Our hope is that, because of a lot of preventative work on the part of our team, the level of infestation will be small.”

In one of the most important developments, the EAB team helped effect a ban on out-of-state firewood, the insect’s main mode of transportation. The effort has most likely slowed the arrival of the beetle in the state. But just as with other methods tried elsewhere – such as trap trees or attempts to kill off EAB – the ban is an imperfect solution. Enormous amounts of firewood come into the state under the radar and there are no controls to mitigate the influx.

It’s a tough reality for Wabanaki people who only recently saw a renaissance in traditional basketmaking. The ancient art started to fall off in the mid-20th Century when the market for baskets dried up. The tradition was not being passed on and by the mid-1990s, the average basketmaker was 63-years-old. Seeing the writing on the wall, tribal elders worked with younger people to revive the tradition, teaching them both to weave baskets and harvest ash in the traditional way, a process that involves a rhythmic pounding akin to a heartbeat. The average basketmaker today is 40 and parents are teaching their children. The EAB threat comes at a time when baskets from members of the Penobscot, Micmac, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy tribes are fetching anywhere from $60 to $6,000 depending on the skill of the artisan and the size and style of the basket.

“The heart of this unique collaboration at the intersection of arts, culture and the environment is the oldest documented arts tradition in New England” said EAB team member John Daigle, Associate Professor of Forest Recreation Management. Black ash “is a cultural keystone species for Wabanaki peoples and serves a critical role in multiple spheres of contemporary life.”

The threat of EAB is especially painful in light of the cultural resurgance.

“Generations of ancestors have passed on long historical weaving traditions and ash creation stories,” said Theresa Secord, Executive Director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and an EAB team member. “We have been able to bring back this traditional art form and inspire a new generation of basketmakers. Now we stand to lose a piece of our culture and a major source of income.”

The EAB team will begin a new phase of research this spring focused squarely on preventing such a loss. The era of adaptation brings with it new projects that approach the EAB problem from multiple angles. Among them:

  • Long-term storage: The EAB team, along with Wabanaki basketmakers, will investigate potential black ash storage methods including drying, freezing and saturating with water.
  • Seed bank: The team will work with tribal, state, and federal partners to identify stands of basket-quality ash and collect as many seeds as possible in the fall of 2014.
  • Ash mapping: Researchers will continue work on mapping and identifying areas where basket-quality ash exists and will work to identify strategies for accessing the trees in a post-EAB reality.
  • Access: As the EAB arrives and ash resources become scarce, the team will work with landowners to develop agreements to grant basketmakers access to harvest basket-quality ash.
  • EAB network: The EAB team will maintain its network of policy-makers, basketmakers, and other stakeholders to monitor for, and communicate about the epidemic before and after the arrival of EAB in Maine. The team will seek input from the network on new project.

 After spending three years in the field and traveling to EAB-infested areas, Kara Lorion knows the stark truth. Once a tree is infested, she said, “the survival rate is less than one percent.” The next phase, she and colleagues say, can’t begin soon enough. In addition to the black ash being studied at UMaine, green and white ash trees are in danger from EAB as well. Both are foliage staples in the downtown areas of many municipalities, having replaced elm trees felled by Dutch elm disease in the 70s and 80s. The threat against Maine’s ash trees, Ranco said, has very real “economic, cultural and spiritual impact.”

Mobilizing to Fight the Emerald Ash Borer
Project Resources