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Saving your ash

As the Emerald Ash Borer bears down, arborists fight to save trees.

Even with the ability to save trees, arborist John Stephenson of Stephenson Tree Care predicts the emerald ash borer will have a devastating impact on Wisconsin’s estimated 770 million ash trees.

Even with the ability to save trees, arborist John Stephenson of Stephenson Tree Care predicts the emerald ash borer will have a devastating impact on Wisconsin’s estimated 770 million ash trees.

Photographs by Alan Sanderfoot

(page 1 of 2)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Arborists understand that fighting the dreaded emerald ash borer is a race against time. Sadly, the iridescent green bug has reached Wisconsin after a long trip from East Asia through Detroit, likely arriving in packing material. It was first discovered on U.S. soil in 2002 and in Wisconsin in 2008. In the Midwest, it is estimated that more than 50 million ash trees are either dead or dying as a result. 

That’s why it was more disappointment than surprise when the insect was first discovered on Madison’s northeast side about three years ago. “We’d been preparing for it,” notes John Stephenson, owner of Stephenson Tree Care Inc. “It was in Illinois and worked its way up to Rockford, then Janesville, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, and Waukesha counties. So it was closing in.”

In Wisconsin, 42 of the state’s 72 counties are now quarantined, restricting the movement of hardwood in an effort to keep the bug at bay.

The devastating impact of the emerald ash borer on the state’s urban and rural forests has yet to be realized but the prognosis is frightening. “All untreated ash trees will die,” Stephenson states soberly. “Treated trees will survive.” Eventually, he predicts, the economic impact of a dying ash tree population will ravage timber-rich northern Wisconsin.

Stephenson earned a degree in forestry from UW–Madison and spent 13 years in graphic arts before going back to urban forestry. “It’s my connection to nature,” he says. He started his company in 2000 to focus on tree care, and the company also handles insect and disease diagnosis and treatment and Dutch Elm and Oak Wilt prevention.

He employs six workers including four certified arborists who handle all aspects of tree and shrub care and maintenance in the Dane County area, but the emerald ash borer is increasingly occupying company time.

A game changer

“For most companies, EAB is a game-changer,” he says. “Tree companies will begin focusing on tree removals, and there will be so much ash coming down that we’ll need more companies to handle it,” he predicts. “The City of Madison is managing 16,000 ash trees along its boulevards. We don’t know how many are in Madison’s backyards, but I bet it could exceed that number tenfold.”

One customer on the northeast side opted not to treat his trees. “It was remarkable,” Stephenson recalls. “We pruned them at the beginning of the summer and didn’t notice any indication of EAB — and we know what to look for! The trees looked great but six months later they were all dead. That’s how fast these insects work.”

The problem is that EABs have no predators. “They can run free range and free will and not have birds or other insects to keep them in check.”

Ash trees are treated one by one and Stephenson usually treats those 12-inches in diameter and larger through injection. Younger trees can be treated systemically through the ground, he explains, but treating entire forests is virtually impossible. Besides that, the Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of chemical allowed per acre.

September is the tail end of the EAB season because trees need their leaves in order to be treated, he explains. On this visit, he will treat three ash trees in a west side backyard.

He begins at the first tree, which has a diameter of about 18-inches. Per the chemical manufacturer’s recommendations, Stephenson drills eight, equally spaced holes around the tree’s base. “It’s an invasive procedure, but it does not harm the tree,” he promises. A plug is inserted into each hole through which the tree will receive a chemical injection of a restricted-use pesticide called TREE-äge. The chemical’s success in battling the dreaded green beetle has been widely heralded.

(Continued)

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