Across the street from Ethan Tapper’s Essex Jct. office is a picturesque neighborhood, a cluster of colonials with paved driveways, basketball hoops and two-car garages.
Both Hayden Street and Wilkinson Drive are lined with ash trees, some nearly 30 years old, on both sides of the road, adding a coziness to the development that’s situated just beyond the busy Route 15.
Within 20 years, all those trees could all be gone if the emerald ash borer, an invasive pest found in central Vermont this February, makes it way north as expected.
Tapper, the Chittenden County forester, says that’s almost certain to happen.
“We can’t contain it,” he said. “It’s going to kill 99 percent of all the ash trees we have.”
Black, white and green ash trees make up 5 percent of Vermont’s trees, and due to their hardiness, are commonly seen in urban areas and lining residential streets such as the ones in the village.
There, 21 percent of public trees are ash, according to a 2014 tree inventory. Neighboring Colchester has 19 percent ash trees, Essex Town has 16 percent and Milton 11, as reported in those towns’ tree inventories.
Add in the ash in town forests, large parks and on private property – plus the thousands of dollars in economic benefit trees provide – and the insect’s potential for collateral damage becomes glaringly apparent.
Infected trees die within three to five years, posing danger to homes, powerlines and the traveling public. Cutting down just one of them can costs hundreds, plus a few hundred more to replace it. Not to mention the visual impact that hundreds of dead or missing trees has on a community’s landscape.
But experts say there’s no cause for panic, arguing there’s time to plan for the borer’s inevitable arrival to Vermont’s northwestern corner.
The emerald ash borer was found in the U.S. in Michigan in 2002, likely by hitchhiking on shipping material from its native Asia. Since then, it’s killed millions of trees across the country.
The borer makes its home underneath an ash’s bark, tunneling through the outer wood, disrupting the tree’s flow of nutrients and killing it from the top down. A telltale sign of infestation is the D-shaped exit wound it leaves in the bark.
Experts aren’t sure whether the borer will eat its way through Vermont and die out or if it will stick around. In the meantime, they have some suggestions for municipalities and homeowners alike. The first: Don’t cut all your trees down right away.
The die-off actually has some benefits, Tapper says.
“[Ash trees will] rot; they’ll become really important wildlife habitat. They’ll fall on the ground, and they’ll become soil, which is all good,” he said. “Cutting all your ash trees is not going to, in any way, slow the spread of the borer.”
Eventually, though, that might become an unfortunate reality. As such, Warren Spinner, Essex Jct.’s tree warden and Burlington’s former arborist for 38 years, said municipalities should begin considering how to manage the infestation.
The Essex Jct. Tree Advisory Committee has just started that process. Last week, Spinner and fellow committee member Nick Meyer told village trustees the committee will soon prepare a report on village ash locations and size and a plan to replace them.
“It’s a matter of economics now,” Spinner said. “What’s it going to cost?”
Essex Town planner Darren Schibler has begun to address that question.
His department, along with the Essex Conservation and Trails Committee, just finalized a draft street tree management plan, which estimates it could cost nearly $47,350 to proactively remove 212 trees. Infected trees could cost 2.5 times that amount to remediate, the chart shows.
However, the plan suggests only removing a portion of these trees, enough to maintain the recommended 10 percent of any one species. This amounts to removing six trees a year for nine years.
“The plan that we have is one that would gradually move the needle toward more diversity [in species] and less risk of one pest having that impact,” Schibler said. “With the arrival of the emerald ash borer, we have to reevaluate the timeline.”
He hopes to present the plan – two years in the making – to the selectboard later this month.
According to Danielle Fitzko, program manager for the Vermont Urban & Community Forestry Program, Essex is one of only 30 communities that have pest preparedness plans, an effort her group has pushed for the last seven years.
Neither Milton nor Colchester are among them.
In Milton, planning director Victor Sinadinoski said news of the borer’s arrival has spurred casual conversations, but department heads have yet to form an official beetle policy. Although Milton’s Conservation Commission will likely add a discussion to an upcoming agenda, the town has no immediate plans to inoculate or cut down trees, he said.
“There’s no high level of concern right now. Not because we’re not concerned the ash borer might come here,” Sinadinoski said. “We don’t have any signs yet that it’s infested here. I don’t think there’s been as much urgency as some other towns.”
Communities like Williston and Stowe have 42 and 50 percent ash street trees, respectively, Fitzko said. The former has already begun replanting, aiming for biodiversity, a goal she recommended Milton undertake when it begins its upcoming streetscape project.
A portion of the voter-approved tax increment financing funds will purchase trees to plant along Route 7 from the Milton Diner to the Clark Falls Dam. Needless to say, ash won’t be added to the mix, Sinadinoski said.
The town has separately pondered banning vegetation that’s prone to invasive species but ultimately decided the preference doesn’t need to be enforced in zoning, he said.
Still, Sinadinoski said now that the borer is here, the town needs to take it seriously. He plans to send staff to the Vermont Arbor Day conference, which will feature a panel on the invasive pest.
“Once it strikes, it strikes really hard,” he said. “It’s on people’s minds now, so that’s what will eventually trigger some action, at least preventative action.”
Colchester also hasn’t formed a prevention plan, though its 2014 tree inventory recommended this step, especially since almost half the new trees planted there are ash and maple – both susceptible to invasives.
“While we are very fortunate to have this plan completed, like many worthwhile endeavors, we fall short on implementation resources,” Colchester public works director Bryan Osborne said in an email.
The report estimated it cost could $31,000 to replace the 124 public ash trees.
Conservation commission chairwoman Theresa Carroll doesn’t think the borer will be too destructive in Colchester and said her biggest worry is campers bringing in contaminated firewood, the borer’s primary route of travel. She said the commission may post bulletins on Front Porch Forum or reach out to local firewood sellers.
Overall, Carroll suggested residents follow the standard law enforcement motto: “If you see something, say something.”
Fitzko, with the urban forestry program, said homeowners can consult with arborists, organize informational meetings or become pest detectors through her organization.
Tapper, the county forester, said municipalities can start underplanting ash trees with new varieties so the streets won’t look so stark when the ash are eventually gone.
On Monday, Essex Jct. tree warden Spinner stood in the ash-lined neighborhood near Tapper’s office, imagining how it would look without any trees.
Taking hold of a branch, he saw seeds sprouting, signs of regeneration and hope that once the borer passes through, the ash might return someday.
“We’re in the infancy of this whole thing,” he said. “Let’s see how it develops.”