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Is emerald ash borer on its way?

WILLMAR -- Jan Derrick and her husband Dorrance moved here, in part, because of the trees.

They tower over 16th Street Southwest, where the couple has lived for the past eight years. Their wide canopies provide the couple and the family homes lining the street with ample shade and a lush verdant atmosphere.

They are all of the ash variety, planted years ago to replace those trees that succumbed to Dutch elm disease. But the ash trees now face an even greater scourge of their own: a tiny Asian native known as the emerald ash borer.

The consensus among foresters and other experts is that despite quarantines in places where the insect has already been identified, its spread within the state and around the country is now inevitable.

That's dire news in a city where ash trees account for 40 to 50 percent of the trees. Until an economical means of killing the pest is devised, it seems a significant amount, if not all of those trees will eventually fall to the insect.

Willmar City Administrator Michael Schmit said he has been watching the situation very closely.

"We're very much aware of the problem," he said. "We know realistically that we're going to have some problems with loss of trees."

Schmit said that the city has developed a three part plan to deal with the insect, in the event it arrives in Willmar. The first is to stop planting new ash trees, the second is to watch trees closely for infestations, and the third is to remove infested trees and control the spread.

He said that at this point, there is no way of knowing how much any of this would cost.

"To what extent we need to budget for this depends on how hard and how fast it spreads," he said.

Tracking the spread of the emerald ash borer in Minnesota is Geir Friisoe's job. He's the director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's plant protection division.

He hasn't had a long time to get acquainted with the insect, but so far, it he hasn't had a good first impression.

"It's the bug from hell," he said. "It's hard to track and it's very hard to get rid of."

One of the problems for researchers like himself, he said, is that while other pests have been in the area for hundreds of years, the emerald ash borer has only been identified in North America in 2002. This leaves him and others to scramble for knowledge on how to best fight it.

While Friisoe acknowledges that the outlook is grim for Minnesota's projected 900 million ash trees, he remains optimistic that ways to curb the insect will be developed as more knowledge is accumulated.

"There's no question that this is a pest that will be permanently established," he said. "I do think some equilibrium will be reached, though."

Insects like the emerald ash borer would only advance naturally around two miles per year, if it weren't for people moving them around, he said. Not only can they be transported through traditional means like moving firewood, he said, but also by simply falling into a car or a truck bed.

"I've heard of people driving from Detroit and having them fall out of their cars later," said Friisoe. "It's certainly a hitchhiker."

Locally, Willmar public works foreman and certified tree inspector Scott Ledeboer has been assisting the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in tracking the emerald ash borer. They've recently placed purple collectors designed to attract the insect, should it be in the area, in ash trees at two locations -- Lions Park on 22nd Street Southwest. and a ditch near the wastewater treatment facility near Wal-Mart.

In the fall, the collectors will be sent to the University of Minnesota, where researchers will analyze the contents for emerald ash borers, he said.

Ledeboer is a veteran of tracking tree afflictions. For years he has been identifying trees in the city with Dutch elm disease and removing them. But this time, he said, due to the sheer number of ash trees in the city limits, and to the destructive capacity of the emerald ash borer, this could be a much bigger and more costly project.

"There would be a considerable cost due to the number," he said.

For Erika Obregon, who has lived on 16th Street Southwest for 5 years, the removal of the ash trees on her street would be a painful, albeit necessary burden.

"I love this street because of the trees," she said. "I'd miss them a lot."

Just down the street, Jan Darick said that while losing the ash trees would be a significant loss to the city, replanting new trees in their place could actually be an opportunity to reinvigorate a sense of community.

She did grow a bit wistful though, when imagining her street free of the ash trees that, for her, have always been there.

"It would be a real shame to see them go," she said looking up at the high canopies, "but if it has to be done, then it has to be done."