Exotic beetle killing black ash tree central to Native cultures and livelihood

AKWESASNE, N.Y. – It takes just three years for a tiny beetle called the emerald ash borer to kill the same black ash tree traditional basket makers have depended on for thousands of years.

Since first detected in 2002, it killed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan, spread to Ohio in 2003, Indiana in 2004, Illinois and Maryland in 2006, Pennsylvania and West Virginia in 2007, Wisconsin, Missouri and Virginia in 2008, Minnesota and New York in 2009, killing tens of million more trees in those states and Ontario and Quebec.

The ash borer, a native of Asia, made its way to this country from China hidden in crude shipping pallets. Once in the Great Lakes cargo ports the matured larvae “flew into the next ash tree,” said Patrick Kelly, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe forestry technician. The borer is but 40 miles from reaching the St. Regis Mohawk border in northern New York.

“We have such a high number of ash trees and so great a number of people who rely on black ash for basket making, that to lose them will cost the lifeblood of our black ash culture,” Kelly said.

Native basket makers throughout the northeast U.S. and Canada face losing their centuries-old black ash basket identity, economy and culture in mere years.

The reason the ash borer is so destructive is there is no effective way to stop or use any controls on them, Kelly said. Adult borers lay eggs in ash bark and the larvae feed inside the tree’s inner bark, cutting off the tree’s ability to get nourishment from the leaves or roots. A tree survives only a few years once adults lay eggs.


Photo courtesy Richard David The emerald ash borer is killing the black ash trees traditional basket makers have depended on for thousands of years. These black ash baskets are from the Richard David collection.

Aerial pesticides kill adult borers but not the larvae. A systemic pesticide approved for limited use in a few states requires injection at the root collar every two or three years for 100 percent effectiveness. “The amount of work and cost is so astronomical in scope of the number of trees it’s not a viable option,” he said.

Their rapid spread resulted from a “lack of public information and education. Property owners cut dead trees into firewood. Mapping shows the centers of many infestations are places like campgrounds, where incompletely burned firewood was left.” Left alone, borers spread about a mile a year.

With the borer just 40 miles from their border, SRMT is taking defensive action by implementing an early identification monitoring system to provide opportunities for early management. These traps, best described as purple tubular contraptions infused with odor to lure the borer into flypaper stickiness, hang across wide areas of their four by seven mile reservation.

“For those who’ve been in forestry for several years this is the worst thing they’ve ever faced,” Kelly said. “It could cost a lot. None of the other ash species has the black ash’s unique durability or splitting properties. Out of an acre of pure stand black ash you get one basket making tree.”

Basket makers cut only straight trees with just the right bark growth. A heavy club pounded down the peeled log’s length breaks the fibers in between the growth rings, releasing the splits used for weaving. Baskets that once served utilitarian purposes today support their artistic weavers and are important economically as well as culturally. Some black ash baskets are museum quality collector’s pieces.

Increased educational outreach and regulations to stop the movement of infected ash wood is perhaps the only viable solution to losing North America’s entire ash resource. Regulatory agencies have enforced quarantines and fines in 12 states and two Canadian provinces to prevent potentially infested ash trees, logs or hardwood firewood from moving out of EAB infested areas.

“At this point I’d say it’s just a matter of time,” Kelly said. “It’s worth immunizing selected seed trees, and saving seeds for long-term storage and replanting. A federal seed bank [in Fort Collins, Colo.] that keeps endangered species from going extinct will store seed projects so they’ll last 75 to 150 years.”

Richard David, assistant director of the First Nation Mohawk Council of Akwesasne environment department and a tireless leader in the black ash restoration movement advocates gathering seeds “of all ash species for long-term storage. When enough time has passed to ensure the borer has eaten all its source of food, has died and is gone from our land, we can replant all ash species for our children’s future.”

For more information on the emerald ash borer visit www.emerald ashborer.info.