By Michael Hill
Loggers in snowy forests are cutting down ash like there's no tomorrow, seeking to stay one step ahead of a fast-spreading beetle killing the tree in dozens of states.
The emerald ash borer has been chewing its way through trees from Maine to Colorado for about two decades, devastating a species prized for yielding a light-grained hardwood attractive enough for furniture and resilient enough for baseball bats. Many hard-hit areas are east of the Mississippi River and north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Some fear areas in the invasion zone like upstate New York might have only five to seven years of ash logging left.
"Emerald ash borer is probably the most thorough killing machine that we've come across in my career over the last 35 years," said Tom Gerow, general manager for The Wagner Companies, which specializes in furniture-grade lumber.
Wagner is sawing ash at its mills at about double the rate they used to. And out in the woods, there's often no reason to follow the common practice of leaving trees behind to regenerate the forest.
"When we're harvesting a stand that has ash in it and you know it's imminent that the ash borer is going to be there, we tend to cut all of the ash," Gerow said.
The beetle was first discovered stateside in 2002 in Michigan and has since destroyed tens of millions of ash trees in more than 30 states. It might have unwittingly been bought over from Asia in shipping pallets. No one knows for sure. But it's clear that the emerald ash borer kills almost every tree it attacks, from thick-canopied suburban shade trees to tall pockets of ash in the woods.
Females lay eggs on ash bark and larval beetles bore looping tunnels just beneath, cutting the flow of trees' nutrients and water. At the Wagner mill in Owego, New York, squiggly scars from a larval tunnel were partially exposed on a stacked log where the bark came off. The wood inside is still good for lumber, but the markings show the tree was on borrowed time.
Winter is a prime time for logging. The frozen ground and leaf-free trees can make it easier to get to and drag out the logs.