Why I worry about the future of Piedmont forests

Emerald Ash Borer

Forget that forests are being erased in record numbers in the name of progress. Forget that climate change and invasive exotic plants are permanently transforming the composition of remaining forests.  I worry more about the invasive exotic animals and diseases. They are small, mobile, and completely deadly. In the case of the Emerald Ash Borer, they are eliminating — completely eliminating — every living Ash tree species in the upper middle region of the United States.  Here’s a quote from a document on the USDA Forest Service’s National Seed Laboratory Web site:

The emerald ash borer (EAB) is killing all native ashes (Fraxinus spp.) in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, and is beginning to spread into surrounding states and provinces.  The loss of these species has cultural, ecological, and economic implications that warrant preserving the genetic resources before too much is lost to the insect.  Trees, as do all plants, must be adapted to their environment to thrive.  Natural ash populations have adapted to their environments, and preserving a significant number of these populations is required for reintroduction of these species once adequate environmental control measures for EAB are developed or trees resistant to the insect are bred and introduced.  Breeding resistant ash trees for reintroduction will ultimately require an array of adapted parental populations.  The projected degree of EAB destruction to native stands is so great that, only an adequate ex situ germplasm collection will be able to provide the needed material for breeding and reintroduction.

Simply put, the scientists studying this invader are certain that all the Ash trees in this region are going to be killed by this invasive exotic insect, and the only hope of saving these species is to save lots of Ash tree seeds now, and store them until they can figure out how to either kill the bug and/or develop Ash trees that can resist the borer.

If you’re thinking that being in the southeast Piedmont of the United States will save our Ash trees, think again. This borer is on the move. Not only can it disperse on its own power, it is small, and is hitching rides on vehicles and other means of transport. Make no mistake, it is just a matter of time before every Ash tree in North America is affected.

Here’s the Web site that serves as an international clearinghouse for information on the Emerald Ash Borer.

If you’re thinking, “So what, I can live without Ash trees. Heck, I’m not sure I even know what one looks like.” Think again. Ash trees are essential components of many Piedmont environments.

And they aren’t the only species threatened by invaders.

You might want to read about the Asian Longhorned Beetle.

Or the fungus called Sudden Oak Death, which is killing more than just oaks — as if that weren’t bad enough.

In my opinion, these links make for scary reading — especially if you’ve got children and grandchildren, who will be living on this invader-transformed planet after you are long gone. So what can we do now?

First, we can stay informed about these threats. Dedicated scientists around the world are wrestling with the invasive exotic species issue. Their best ideas about containment policies or changes in import rules are often blocked by those who wield the Big Dollars. They label anything that “impedes commerce” as unpatriotic.

My reply: What are you planning to sell when your native ecosystems are broken beyond repair, when your water is too polluted to drink, and your air is dangerously toxic? Forests are profoundly important to the health of the planet.  So stay informed, and keep your political representatives apprised of your concerns and priorities.

And maybe one more thing might help a little. Healthy ecosystems are almost always diverse ecosystems. The many species comprising an ecosystem engage in an intricate dance of give and take that keeps all the parts healthy and whole. Even in your own quarter-acre lot, you can increase species diversity, thereby creating a more vigorous ecosystem. Re-create typical Piedmont forest layers, get rid of non-native lawn grasses. Give more Piedmont native species places to hide. Maybe — just maybe — then the invaders won’t find and kill all of them.

Fingers crossed …

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