Groups are working to protect trees — and traditions — from the emerald ash borer
Maine was the last state in the Northeast to see the arrival of the destructive emerald ash borer in 2018. The invasive pest lays eggs which hatch into larvae that feed under the bark of ash trees, depriving it of water and nutrients.
It's not clear how much damage has been done so far in Maine, though hundreds of millions of urban and rural trees across the U.S. have been killed by the beetle.
That's a threat not just to the forests, but for the Wabanaki tribes that have used brown ash to make traditional baskets for generations.
But new strategies to protect ash trees in Maine are underway.
At the University of Maine Forests Office, the Ash Protection Collaboration Across Wabanakik, known as APCAW, is training three dozen conservationists, educators and landowners on how to collect the seeds of various ash varieties found in Maine.
UMaine graduate assistant Ella McDonald demonstrates "the Big Shot," a giant sling shot mounted on a pole that shoots a weighted rope across an ash tree, causing seeds from its branches to cascade down onto a tarp on the ground.
Emily Francis leads the outdoor training, outlining the data that must be recorded with each batch of seeds collected.
"We need to know if you're looking at a green, white or black or brown ash tree," Francis said. "We also need the GPS coordinates of where the tree is located."
Once gathered, the seeds are brought indoors and sorted for viability. They will be dried and stored, until it's time to plant them and grow a new generation of ash trees in a seed orchard, like the one hosting seedlings at the Turkey Hill Farm in Cape Elizabeth.
Les Benedict is a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and brown ash coordinator for the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment in New York. Benedict has three decades of experience collecting brown ash seed and growing trees that are protected from pests and disease in a seed orchard.
"We want to continue to collect seeds and encourage people to start seed orchards so they can produce seeds," Benedict said. "But the orchard would have to be treated with insecticide to protect them from dying."
John Daigle, a citizen of the Penobscot Nation and Forest Resources Professor at UMaine, says his grandparents' baskets provided income for the family and a way to connect one generation of Wabanaki to the next.
"When I interacted more with basket makers and harvesters I gained a deeper understanding of the cultural significance of brown ash, in terms of its ties to one of the creation stories of the Wabanaki people, of all four tribes in Maine," Daigle said.
In addition to seed collection and propagation, there are other efforts underway to stop the march of the emerald ash borer, which was identified last year in Bridgton. That's one location where a non-native wasp that preys on the beetle is being introduced.
Maggie Lynn, Development and Outreach Manager at Loon Echo Land Trust, says Bridgton is one of a handful of sites across the state where the wasps, native to Asia and reared at a Midwest facility, are being released.
"We've been releasing them all summer and will again next year... the state will take some trees to see if the wasps are still there and it's working," she said.
In test areas, one or several wasp species are released that locate the ash borer eggs or larvae in ash trees, and then inject or deposit their own eggs. The wasp eggs hatch into larvae and kill the ash borers. After two seasons of releases the state will remove ash trees to study if the wasp release worked. If they have, the wasps will be released into new locations where emerald ash borer is found.
To prevent the spread of emerald ash borer, the state is also considering the expansion of quarantines around infected ash tree stands to ensure that trees are not moved.
Maine also requires campers to use only firewood from authorized in-state vendors.
Support for Deep Dive: Invasives is provided by Maine Audubon, Friends of Acadia and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.