By MEGAN HARTLEY, Capital News Service
CHELTENHAM - Three years ago, Helen Kittredge, noticed the leaves on the 21-year-old ash tree in her front yard were dying. At first, she thought the clusters of pansies and petunias she had planted around the base of the ash were responsible for the tree slowly withering.
But in September a letter came from the Maryland Department of Agriculture that put her guilty conscience to rest. It warned of a new infestation of the emerald ash borer - an invasive beetle that killed about 25 million ash trees in the Midwest - in Prince George's County. She notified the department, and the next month, loggers and reporters were swarming around her house as the large ash was cut down.
"I'm an original resident of the Heatherwick neighborhood so I remember when they were planted, I remember how old it was because that's when my grandson was born and he is 21 now," said Kittredge, still mourning the loss of her tree. "We lost the shade, it blocked the sun into our living room during the day."
Kittredge's once majestic ash tree was one of the first to be ground to bits at the old State Tobacco Warehouse in Cheltenham. But it will not be the last.
In an effort to eradicate the beetle from the state, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has begun cutting down all the ash trees in an 11,500 acre area of southern Prince George's County.
And next week, huge machines with iron teeth will begin grinding up hundreds of ash trees in residential neighborhoods as well.
There is worry that the infestation could spread beyond Prince George's County. The stakes are high: If the beetle were to go unchecked, officials estimate it could cause up to $227 million in damages in the Baltimore area alone. The tree accounts for about 10 percent of the street trees in Baltimore and 20 percent of streamside trees, which are important for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
The invasive beetle made its first appearance in Maryland in 2003, with the delivery of tainted trees from Michigan to a nursery in Prince George's County. Last year, inspectors for the Maryland Department of Agriculture found the beetle again in trees planted as "bait" in the previously infested areas to see if the ash borer was still there.
When an ash tree is infested by the beetle, scientists believe that within the next year, ash trees within a half-mile radius will also be infested. Because the infestation was three years ago, state forestry officials must therefore examine a radius of 1.5 miles from each infested tree.
The beetle cannot be killed with pesticides because it lives under the bark, where it disrupts the water and nutrient flow of the tree. The only way to kill the larva is to kill the tree and chop the bark into a square inch pieces.
"These trees are going to die anyway, if we continue to allow the emerald ash borer to populate, the trees will die and it will continue to move across the state and then the country," said Carol A. Holko, Chief of Plant Protection and Weed Management for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Ash trees located in the Brandywine and Clinton areas of Prince George's County are being marked with orange paint to notify residents of their removal. Door hangers and well over 7,600 letters have gone out to those who may be affected by the logging.
Holko estimates about 20,000 to 30,000 trees, 2,000 in residential
neighborhoods, need to be removed before March 31, when the larva begin to hatch and adult beetles leave the trees.
Once the trees are cut down, the stumps will later be ground beneath the soil surface and filled with mulch or soil. Holko estimates that not all ash trees will be discovered during the first logging round. Forestry inspectors will come back to look for trees they missed or that have re-sprouted.
"If anyone has an ash tree in their yard that isn't painted orange, then boy we'd like to hear from them," said Holko.
The department issued what it calls a "quarantine" for Prince George's County, meaning that any type of firewood and all ash trees cannot be moved outside the quarantine area. Steve Koehn, Director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, stresses the importance of not moving firewood.
"The Harry Homeowner guy with a pickup truck and a chainsaw is our biggest problem at this point. Burn it where you cut it, don't sell it and don't take it out of the quarantine area," said Koehn.
The federal government is providing $3.7 million in funding to combat the Maryland infestation, saying that this is a national problem. Frank Lowenstein, Director of Forest Health Programs at The Nature Conservancy, hopes that the funding nationwide will go up about 90 percent. "It would cost about $90 million in federal funding to eradicate the beetle across the country, right now we are only getting about $9.6 million," said Lowenstein.