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Ash borer leaves wake of devastation in Michigan

Shea Charles likened the emerald ash borer's march across Michigan to the front lines of a losing battle.

Driving about 40 miles west of Howell, Mich., Charles said he could literally see the dividing line between ash borer-infested ash trees and those that were seemingly healthy.

Back home in Howell, where he is city manager, the ash borers have already marched on, leaving a wake of devastation in their path. The city of just over 9,000 has lost most, if not all, of its ash trees to the insect, and its experience is reflected throughout southeastern Michigan, where the ash borer, a native of Asia, was first discovered in North America in 2002.

With experts predicting the ash borer's inevitable spread westward, looking at these cities and how they've coped with the scourge could be a reflection of things to come in cities like Willmar.

For a Tree City USA, some areas of Howell look decidedly barren, said Charles.

The city has engaged in an aggressive campaign to remove dead and dying ash trees and plant a much greater variety of trees in their place.

Charles said the existing city forestry program, built up years before to dispose of trees infected with Dutch elm disease, came in handy to deal with the scourge infesting the very trees that were, in many cases, planted in the dead elm trees' place.

He did say, though, that the program has eaten up a big portion of the city's budget in recent years. While Charles didn't have any numbers available, a documented study in Westland, Mich., where an ash borer infestation killed all of the city's ash trees in 2002, showed a median cost of $635 for every tree removed and $205 for every tree replaced.

"It hurts," he said. "We'd obviously like to be spending the money in other places."

In a sense, Howell was lucky. Only 15 to 20 percent of its trees were ash, compared to more than 50 percent in some places.

In John Bedford's neighborhood in the Detroit metropolitan area, avenues which were previously lush and verdant in the summer, are now locked in a perpetual winter. Nothing but dead and leafless trees remain on streets that were once shaded entirely by ash trees.

"It's not pretty, I'll tell you that," he said. "Every ash tree is either dead, dying or gone already."

Overall, said Bedford, the pest survey field operation coordinator for the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the emerald ash borer has killed millions of trees throughout Michigan.

While quarantines were initially instituted on the county level, there is now a quarantined area encompassing the state's entire lower peninsula. It prohibits the transport of hardwood firewood out of the area and outlaws the sale or movement of ash nursery stock.

While the bug was identified in the area in 2002, it was likely present for five to 10 years before that, said Bedford.

The state of Michigan initially tried to isolate and eradicate the insects, but those efforts were later proven to be futile when it was found that the ash borer had already firmly established itself in the state.

"It built up to a level where it just took off," he said.