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First Reading: Wildfire in slow motion

Published (5/1/2009)
By Sue Hegarty
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Two vials, one with a larvae and the other with a mature Emerald Ash Borer, sit on top of a map showing the insects migration west from the East Coast. The display was before the House Cultural and Outdoors Resources Finance Division April 22. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)More than 30 years ago, Minnesota legislators created programs to fight Dutch elm disease, a tree fungus spread by the elm bark beetle. The disease stripped boulevards bare and prompted local governments to paint bright red Xs on dying shade trees destined for removal. Could Minnesota be headed down that road again?

Comparisons are being made between the elm bark beetle and the emerald ash borer, a tree pest recently discovered in Victory, Wis., just across the Mississippi River from Houston County, Minn. The emerald ash borer moves two miles per year, living underneath bark and interrupting the natural flow of nutrients in ash trees. It can travel much farther if it is helped by humans moving infected wood.

Rep. Larry Haws (DFL-St. Cloud) was a parks director in the 1970s and clearly remembers the devastation caused by Dutch elm disease. “It was a very scary time. (The elm) was a much larger tree but it wasn’t in the … forests, so this is a very significant challenge that the state of Minnesota is going to be taking on in the protection of our ash trees.”

In 1974, the House passed policy bills to identify diseased trees and to give cities and counties authority to remove them. The following year, the state adopted grant-in-aid programs to help cities dispose of the removed trees, citing, “The Legislature finds that an epidemic of Dutch elm disease … is occurring in Minnesota which threatens the natural environment. Immediate action is therefore necessary…” They appropriated $1.5 million in 1975 to manage tree diseases, and by 1978 they were awarding $29.7 million in grants for the purpose, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Ash was the tree of choice for filling the void left by Dutch elm disease. Now those 20- to 30-year-old hardwoods are threatened by the fluorescent green bug that’s no bigger than a thumb. Its discovery in western Wisconsin prompted a federal and state quarantine last week that prohibits the movement of ash wood in Houston County beyond county lines, even though the bug or its distinctive D-shaped exit hole have not yet been found in Minnesota.

Déjà vu

Legislators are racing against the clock, before the May 18 adjournment deadline, to protect ash trees and to pass bills designed to prevent the invasion of the emerald ash borer.

Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL-Mpls) sponsors HF2262 that would appropriate $1.5 million, the same as the 1975 funding level, for training volunteers and to educate the public in early detection methods. But unlike 1975, when there was a state surplus and approved tax breaks, Minnesota is facing a $4.6 billion deficit in the next biennium.

So where could funding be found? Voters approved a constitutional amendment last year to authorize a sales tax increase, with proceeds going into an outdoor heritage fund to protect the state’s natural resources. Loeffler said the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division is considering using a portion of its projected reserve fund toward prevention efforts.

S. Olin Phillips, left, Nursery and Forest Health Section Manager with the Department of Natural ResourcesLoeffler’s bill also requests $125,000 for the Forest Protection Task Force, $30,000 for a “releaf” program and another $5 million to establish an emergency forest pest response account. Similar to the emergency forest fire account, the emergency pest fund could be tapped in the event of an emerald ash borer infestation.

“Emerald ash borer has been described as a forest fire in slow motion,” Loeffler said. “I’m hoping that we will have an inventory, before we’re done with this session, of laws and regulations that we need to assist … in creating that stronger network of early detectors and also the response tools that you need to make sure this doesn’t spread.”

Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) represents the county under quarantine.

“Once they get across, it’s not a matter of eradicating; it’s a matter of containing, and that’s disturbing,” he said. “It’s frightening what could happen, especially if it worked its way up to Rep. Anzelc’s district, which has tremendous amounts of ash trees.” Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) represents District 3A in northern Minnesota.

Davids said his district has a large Amish community whose members use wood regularly as an energy supply. He said special consideration will be required when notifying this community, because of their non-reliance on modern technology. He sponsors HF2338, a bill nearly identical to Loeffler’s except that it does not include money for grants to local governments or require the funds to be tied to achieving state environmental goals.

Loeffler’s bill has no companion. Davids’ bill is a companion to SF2108, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Erickson-Ropes (DFL-Winona), which awaits action by the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division.

The color purple

Officials from the Agriculture and Natural Resources departments have been working to leverage additional funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only $120,000 each year is spent by the department to look for the emerald ash borer, according to Geir Friisoe, senior program administrator in the department. Most of the funds are used to perform two survey methods:

• 1,000 long purple strips of sticky tape are placed around trees that act much like fly paper. Scientists have determined that the emerald ash borer is attracted to the color purple.

• A single tree in a grove of ash trees may be used as a “trap” for the bug. A strip of bark is removed from the tree to attract the pests to that particular tree, which is then sacrificed to save the surrounding trees.

These tactics are used in campgrounds, in densely populated areas and where there are high concentrations of ash trees, including northern Minnesota forests. Friisoe said the department is hoping to receive a grant from the USDA to purchase more sticky traps.

Several legislators have asked about biological remedies. Researchers have gone to China, the native origin of the emerald ash borer, and some eradication success has been shown using stingless wasps.

Loeffler said most infestations are found by the general public, which is why she is advocating for the early detection program. In Michigan, where the pest has had a strong foothold, cities have seen increases in water and electricity consumption as a result of losing their shade trees, Loeffler said.

“We have heard where some states lost control because they didn’t have the right kind of plan. Minnesota has been a national leader in gypsy moth (control) and I think we can be a national leader on this,” she said.

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