In 2003, the state of Ohio had an estimated 3.8 billion ash trees existing in our forests, woodlots and in our own backyards. Today, that is not the case. The emerald ash borer (EAB) has swept across our state at record pace and is wiping out ash trees where they stand. EAB was first detected near Toledo in 2003, but it is now known to exist in all 88 of Ohio’s counties. The larvae of this beetle is an insatiable grub that feasts on the living vascular tissue of the tree. The insect is killing our ash trees and costing Ohio residents billions of dollars in tree removal, and replacement costs, plus an ecological cost that is hard to even quantify. There will likely be no great rebound of ash in our lifetime, so looking forward we must ask ourselves: how do we cope?
The loss of such an important canopy species has ecological impacts that we are just beginning to understand. The loss of forest canopy allows sunlight to reach the forest floor and spur new plant growth. In an ideal world, this is not a bad thing. This creates early successional habitat as new trees start to grow and benefits a multitude of wildlife. Unfortunately, that is not the reality we face here in southwest Ohio. Bush honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, callery pear, multiflora rose and a score of other invasive plants are quickly taking advantage of this available sunlight. If gone unchecked, these areas would be infested with non-native plants and new trees would not be able to compete for sunlight to replace the dead ash. With all that said and the odds stacked against us, the question still stands: what do we do?
The task of restoring our forests has been embraced by Great Parks of Hamilton County. A small number of highly-valued ash trees are being treated with a chemical to fend off EAB. This technique is effective, but not feasible on a large-scale reforestation project. Great Parks is also taking on the after-effects of ash die-back. Herbicide applications are important tools in controlling invasive plant species. Well-trained staff and volunteers use various application techniques to achieve specific results, with minimal impact to non-target species. This allows the natural succession of new trees to grow and fill in the canopy gaps left behind by the dying ash. Supplemental tree plantings are sometimes utilized to give these areas a head start.
With all of these odds stacked against us, it is more important now than ever to stay vigilant. New populations of invasives must be sought out and managed before they become well established and much harder to fight. The sad truth is that ash may be facing the same fate as the American chestnut, but Great Parks is fortunate to have a dedicated group of staff and volunteers to keep fighting the good fight. Though the outlook from here may seem bleak, the seeds of victory are still in the ground. We just have to give them a chance.
Chris Glassmeyer, Natural Resources Technician