Regulations to prevent ash borer spread begin this week

The first steps to prevent the highly destructive and invasive emerald ash borer beetle from spreading beyond the four communities where it’s been found in Connecticut begin later this week.

A quarantine that prohibits the movement of certain wood products out of New Haven County, the only county afflicted by the ash borer so far, and emergency statewide firewood regulations will go into effect Thursday, the morning after a public meeting in Prospect to explain the measures.

The ash borer turned up in Prospect July 16, and there have since been sightings — confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — in Naugatuck, Bethany and Beacon Falls. It is the 16th state to be hit, but the first in New England. The borer has already killed tens of millions of trees in the U.S.

Native to Asia, the ash borer was first spotted in the Detroit area in 2002, and reached the western shores of the Hudson River in New York State a few years ago. Connecticut officials have been on alert with hundreds of purple traps (fondly referred to as Barney traps for the child’s TV dinosaur figure) acting as sentinels. But last year when it jumped to Dutchess County on the eastern side of the Hudson, Connecticut officials suspected it would be just a matter of time.

“We’re not surprised that it showed up,” said Chris Martin, the state forester and director of the Division of Forestry at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We’re more surprised where it showed up.”

All bets were on Litchfield County. The fact that the borer jumped to an interior county has some scratching their heads, and there is disagreement on how it may have finally traveled here.

“Chances are good it’s firewood,” Martin said. “Chances are it’s homeowner firewood when it makes large geographical jumps.”

But Louis Magnarelli, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, whose people actually found the borer while tracking another insect, thought some of the strong storms that have come in from the north over the past year might have been the culprit.

“Those storms have powerful updrafts,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much for these storms to pick up these beetles and bring them into Connecticut.”

The fact that the borer didn’t show up in traps last year, he added, doesn’t mean it wasn’t already here. “We really don’t know how long it’s been here and how it got here,” he said.

Since managing weather can’t be done, the chief method of containment is to restrict the movement of wood.

The quarantine and emergency regulations will prohibit all — not just ash — cut and split firewood or long logs destined to become firewood from being moved from New Haven County to any other county in the state unless they’re treated, typically done with fumigation or heat. Within New Haven County firewood will not be restricted.

A federal quarantine will go into effect in several weeks prohibiting transport of untreated firewood from New Haven County to other states. But since it would have to travel through other Connecticut counties first, effectively that ban will already exist through the state quarantine.

The quarantine will also prevent ash logs for lumber and other non-firewood uses from traveling outside of New Haven County unless they are also treated or stripped of bark. The borer burrows into ash tree bark traveling throughout the layer just beneath it, eventually killing the tree.

The emergency regulations will also require verification of origin for firewood coming into Connecticut from other states. The Experiment Station will handle that on a case-by-case basis to determine if treatment is necessary.

And the regulations will require verification of origin for firewood traveling from county to county within Connecticut, except for New Haven County, which has the quarantine. The county-to-county verification will be on an honor system.

“This is an educational focus not a punitive enforcement focus,” Martin said. “You don’t need to worry about getting arrested or fined — at least for the moment.

“It’s a very serious matter but something that needs to have a soft start. We don’t want to be a tyranny state. We need to do this with a common-sense approach.”

Martin said that means firewood users and sellers should think in terms of best management practices such as buying wood as locally as possible to keep from spreading the insect quicker and farther.

Don’t rush to cut

And don’t race to cut down ash trees. “Hasty decisions are often the wrong decisions,” Martin said.

Trees can be treated for ash borer infestation. Martin and Magnarelli both cited techniques for injecting insecticides into the soil and the trees themselves. Magnarelli said the USDA is evaluating a biological control using parasitic non-stinging wasps that feed on the borers. But unlike other infestations, there is no federal money to help with treatment. Individuals and municipalities are on their own dealing with the problem.

DEEP estimates based on U.S. Forest Service data is that ash trees account for 4 percent to 15 percent of trees in the state. They occur in forest pockets, but also in urban areas where they were often planted to replace elms felled by Dutch elm disease.

While they do have industrial uses, most prominently for baseball bats and tool handles, ash trees are not as widely used for lumber and landscaping as they once were, so the economic impact to the timber and greenhouse industries is expected to be minimal.

Bob Heffernan, executive director of the Green Industries Council, which includes the Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association, said ash trees account for about $5 million of the $1 billion state greenhouse industry business.

“In this economy every sale counts, so $5 million is still a good amount of money,” he said. “Ash is out there and it’s used.”

Joan Nichols, president of the Connecticut Professional Timber Producers Association, said the state’s timber industry is accustomed to verifications and restrictions in other states and Canada and the paperwork that goes with it.

“It’s going to cost some money,” she said of the quarantine and emergency regulation. “Paperwork, time, always cost money.

“The bigger concern overall is going to be the movement of firewood. Not the professionals — the operators that operate on the fringe and homeowners.”

She and others said, however, with so much wood remaining from storms over the past year, they didn’t expect an increase in firewood prices.

More ominously Nichols noted: “I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to think it’s going to stay in New Haven County.”

State officials agree, but all remarked that Connecticut can count its blessing that only the emerald ash borer has turned up. The Asian longhorned beetle has also been just across the border — in its case, just below the Massachusetts Turnpike in the Worcester area — for years. It can infest many more tree types than the borer and would decimate the state’s sugar maples.

“What this quarantine and statewide firewood regulations will do,” the DEEP’s Martin said, “Is help us be better prepared if the Asian longhorned beetle shows up.”

Facts on the borer, wood restrictions and other homeowner and business information are available on the DEEP and Experiment Station websites. Both are updated frequently.