Soldiers on a reconnaissance mission-- a battle in the streets of Concord, N.H. The convoy has a list of targets, a list of suspected locations where the enemy may be hiding in plain sight. Some come up empty; others are out of reach. It's a war that's tough to win when you can barely see the army, no larger than a penny.
Despite the small size, the tree pest known as the emerald ash borer has left a wake of destruction across the U.S. Like the name might suggest, it's an exotic beetle that goes after one type of tree in particular: ash. The ash borer feeds on the inner bark of trees and lays its larvae deep in the wood, destroying the tree from the inside out.
"Emerald ash borer is the most devastating forest pest we have in North America right now," said Kyle Lombard of the N.H. Division of Forests and Lands.
Experts say it's the collateral damage of globalization. Before 2002 it had never been detected in North America. Originally found in Asia, U.S. forest officials say all that was known about the metallic green, half-inch bug was two paragraphs in a Chinese textbook.
Now, it's infected 19 states and that number continues to grow. The latest is New Hampshire-- just discovered in March-- where conservative estimates from the USDA have the cost of tree treatment, removal and replacement at $250 million.
Most New England cities and towns line their main streets and plant their parks with ash trees. Now, local and state governments are facing the cost of removing the trees infected with the invader and replacing them with another type of tree not susceptible to the bug.
Kyle Lombard is New Hampshire's general in the battle against the ash borer.
Reporter Steve Bottari: Here in New Hampshire, is any of that money already budgeted?
Kyle Lombard: No, nobody has that money budgeted. And so any effort we can make right now to control this small outbreak that we have and keep it contained, that will save millions of dollars over the next few decades for other regions that don't get infected.
Containing the outbreak isn't just about saving money for taxpayers, it's about protecting livelihoods. Lombard says jobs are at risk, like the state's lumber industry which relies on ash to make everything from tool handles to baseball bats and those who sell firewood.
At public meetings the questions are tough and the solutions aren't clear. Right now the state says it can't beat the bug, only slow its movement.
"We know we're going to have to live with emerald ash borer in our forests forever," Lombard said.
The cost of doing nothing though, they say, is potentially every single ash tree in the state. So, the state has created a quarantine in the county around the capital-- no wood in; no wood out. Firewood is largely blamed for the invasive species spread. Experts say if you stop the spread of firewood, you can slow the ash borer to a halt.
Suspect trees are taken for testing back to the forest army's makeshift camp, where volunteer soldiers from across New England identify infested trees in a garage that actually used to house military tanks. The state coordinates the fight from a trailer normally reserved to battle wildfires, trying to stop the spread of a different forest threat. Surveying and planning now, preparing for action later; cutting down trees, using chemicals and even releasing genetically-modified wasps at $4 a piece are all options the state says it's considering to contain the ash borer.
"We're getting a chance to help out our neighbors," Windsor County Forester Sam Schneski Windham said.
Vermonters are among those working in Concord, worried the emerald ash borer has already been found in New York, Massachusetts, Quebec and now New Hampshire, worried they'll soon be facing the invader in the Green Mountains.
"Ash is a key component of a lot of our forests in Vermont," Schneski Windham said. "I think it's a matter of not if we find it, but when we find it."
And so they're taking the fight to them in the streets of New Hampshire's capital. Consider it urban forestry warfare. In Concord, the battle against these bugs is really only just getting started. But if you journey an hour south, you'll see where the crusade to crush the invaders has left a wake of destruction that looks more like a warzone.
New Hampshire forest officials say early detection is key. Computer models have the ash borer in Vermont within the next five years. If it's found early enough, they say it could save Vermont tens of millions of dollars.
You want to look for what foresters call blonding. On infected trees, woodpeckers and other birds chip away at the outer bark trying to get to the ash borer, exposing the lighter bark. They say that's the telltale sign. If you see it, call your county forester to check it out. You might just save the state millions.
Sunday, March 9 2014 6:08 PM EDT2014-03-09 22:08:59 GMT
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