Saving your ash

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

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.



Under pressure

John Stephenson, a licensed pesticide applicator, measures and treats an ash tree with a chemical designed to protect against the emerald ash borer.

Donning protective eyeglasses and rubber gloves, Stephenson carefully pours 80 milliliters of the blue chemical into a tube followed by an equal amount of water.

The concoction is transferred into a plastic pressure container. Eight lengths of tubing snake from the lid, each with a valve and needle at the opposite end.

Checking that all the valves are closed, he pumps air into the system with a common bicycle pump, pressurizing it to about 35psi. “It’s like a PICC line,” he states, but instead of intravenously delivering lifesaving medication to a human being, this system is preserving the life of an ash tree.

He bleeds each line of air before injecting. Immediately, the tree begins to uptake.

Stephenson steps back to admire his work. “I think this is a good day,” he nods. “They’re still photosynthesizing and doing their thing, even after heavy rains.” He gazes up at the tree’s lush, green canopy above. “The leaves run the factory.” 

Stephenson must remain with the tree until each of the eight lines run clear of fluid and the pressure container is empty. That could take minutes or hours. The longest he’s waited has been three to four hours but that’s okay, he says, because he believes in this treatment, and he often uses the time to complete business-related paperwork. In the industry, this treatment has proven to be in the top 90-percentile of effectiveness for controlling EAB, but it must be applied every two years.

Treatment costs vary, depending on the company. They all pay the same price for the chemical, he says — over $4,000 per case of liquid — but operational costs vary. “I’d say the price range is between $7.50 per inch diameter to as high as $12 to $15 per inch diameter. The bigger the tree, the more chemistry is required.”

This tree, he guesses, is between 25 and 30 years old — a babe in the woods since ash trees can grow to be 100 years old with 50-inch diameters. Madison has many such trees, especially on the north and east sides of town. “It’s a real loss to the community,” he states. “Trees do a lot for storm-water absorption. They just soak everything up. If we didn’t have our trees this [rainy] summer would have just been mud and flooding.”

He credits the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Wisconsin Arborists Association (WAA) for informing the public, especially when it comes to the restrictions on transferring woodpiles from one location to another. One problem, though, is that insects can also be carried for thousands of miles by wind, and 2016 has proven to be a turbulent year around the country.

Ironically, ash trees were planted years ago to fill the void left after the Dutch-Elm disease crisis. “We didn’t learn a whole lot from that. We plugged ash trees in side by side and forgot a lot of our urban forestry. We didn’t diversify. Now we have EAB affecting a huge component of ash trees in our backyards. That’s the next crisis.”

Wisconsin Ash Facts

Wisconsin’s ash tree canopy helps reduce pollution, lowers heating and cooling costs, and absorbs storm-water runoff. Ash tree losses across the state could cost residents an estimated $270 million per year. Other estimates include:

  • Ash trees in Wisconsin: 770 million
  • Ash trees on public and private lands: 5 million
  • Percentage of ash trees in rural forests: 7%
  • Percentage of ash trees in urban forests: 20%
  • Cost to urban residents of losing ash trees: $3 billion to remove/replace

Source: Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection

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