Little green beetles are killing ash trees at a rate no one knows how to stop.
Emerald ash borers, spotted in counties across North Carolina, have triggered a statewide quarantine on ash trees, which make up about 2 percent of N.C. forests. North Carolina joined 14 other quarantined U.S. states Thursday with an emergency order signed by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
That means the tree’s wood – found in common firewood and used to make tools and baseball bats – can’t travel outside the quarantined area.
Wake County was added to the list of quarantined North Carolina counties in late June when Robert Trickel, head of the N.C. Forest Service’s forest health branch, discovered the beetle on a trap his colleague set up.
At first, he couldn’t find any signs of the beetle. “But I happened to take my binoculars out,” Trickel said. He called the trap’s owner and they sent the beetle to an expert in Maryland. As soon as its type was confirmed, the region was quarantined.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture has been tracking the beetles throughout the state since 2013. They’ve set up traps that smell like the ash tree. They’ve searched near baseball fields, which attract a type of wasp that hunts the borer. They’ve released another type of wasp that lays its eggs in the beetle’s larvae.
After the beetle is detected, however, it’s often too late to protect nearby trees. “It’s very stealthy, very cryptic,” Trickel said. “When we find a tree that’s been affected, it could have already been there for three to five years. So you’re not going to stop it.”
“Even the young trees, it’s affecting them. You can’t get much regeneration,” said Jennifer Roach, who also works at the N.C. Forest Service.
Treatment is expensive to use in large forested areas and hasn’t proven effective in Northern states, where the beetle was first discovered inside the country in 2002. Since then, tens of millions of ash trees have been killed or harmed nationwide.
In North Carolina, the largest groups of ash trees are along major rivers and along flood plains.
Roach said the ash trees that can be saved are ones that stand alone in a yard or along the road. She encourages people who notice their ash trees struggling to contact their N.C. Forest Service county ranger.
Beetles often move long distances when campers take firewood from one place to another. “Don’t Move Firewood,” a campaign across North America, stresses the importance of buying local firewood near where it will be burned.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park started prohibiting non-local firewood in March. Heat-treated firewood, with a state or federal certification seal on the packaging, signals that the wood is free of harmful pests.
Ironically, the statewide quarantine makes it easier for firewood dealers and those using wood from ash trees to make products. Before, there were isolated counties that had to be avoided. Now the wood can move freely inside the state and into Virginia, which is also quarantined.
Trickel said every once in a while, a new pest that attacks a different tree species is found – the hemlock woolly adelgid in the west, the laurel wilt in the east.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re sweeping a dirt floor,” Trickel said.
“Our best bet is early detection and rapid response,” he said. “We’re going to protect our forest species by species.”
For help and information
Home- and landowners can report any symptomatic activity in ash trees to the N.C. Agriculture Department Plant Industry Division hotline at 800-206-9333 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by contacting their local N.C. Forest Service county ranger. To find your county ranger, go to ncforestservice.gov/contacts/contacts_main.htm. Rangers can suggest treatment options for homeowners.