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To battle bug, out-of-state firewood barred in Pa.

| Wednesday, July 25, 2007

As Tim Newcamp wound the gray Chevy Tahoe through a quiet Cranberry subdivision Tuesday morning, it became obvious that something was amiss.

Though fall is months away, many trees were leafless.

He pulled the sport utility vehicle -- plastered with a bumper sticker reading: "Don't move firewood, it BUGS me!" -- to the side of a dead-end road lined with bare ash trees. The bark on the trunks had split open and the softer white wood beneath was covered with S-shaped lines and dotted with D-shaped holes.

Emerald ash borers have been here for several years.

Newcamp is one of 30 agricultural officials who fanned out across Western Pennsylvania this week looking for signs of the small green beetle, an invasive Asian insect that has destroyed more than 25 million ash trees in five other states. Federal and state agriculture officials confirmed last month that it has arrived in Pennsylvania -- home to millions of ash trees. Forests in northern Pennsylvania supply the majority of ash trees used to make baseball bats.

Yesterday the state banned importing any out-of-state firewood to Pennsylvania, unless the wood is packaged in containers that identify it as "kiln dried" or "USDA Certified." It's an effort to minimize the spread of ash borer and other invasive pests such as the Asian long-horned beetle, sirex woodwasp and bark beetles.

"It's mainly the larvae that cause the damage," said Newcamp, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service officer. "Their galleries girdle the tree, so the nutrients and water don't flow up and down, and the tree dies."

To slow the ash borer's spread, the state has quarantined Allegheny, Butler, Beaver and Lawrence counties. Moving any type of hardwood firewood and ash nursery trees out of the counties could result in a $20,000 fine and jail time.

Emerald ash borers have been in the United States for at least five years and are believed to have come here aboard cargo ships that docked near Detroit, site of the first North American infestation. There are no natural predators for the ash borer in the United States and no one has invented a pesticide to destroy it.

Ash trees are defenseless against the beetle, which finds the trees by smell. The trees usually die within three years, starting in the upper branches.

"We thought we'd put bad mulch down," said Rick O'Patchen, of Cranberry. Three years ago ash trees near his house started dying. He learned this month that ash borers are the culprit. "It's really too bad -- they were nice trees."

Once state and federal officials finish surveying Western Pennsylvania for ash borers, they'll form a plan to stem its spread based on how widespread the infestation is. At least 28 square miles in northern Allegheny, southern Butler and eastern Beaver counties are infested.

The state could start removing trees as early as this fall. Last week in Ohio, the cities of Cleveland and Columbus announced plans to remove almost 14,000 street-side ash trees and urged surrounding communities to come up with similar plans.

The USDA estimates that states and cities could spend $7 billion in the next 25 years to remove and replace ash trees. The federal government gave Pennsylvania $3 million for the emergency surveillance.

The Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association is trying to get money through the federal farm bill to provide relief to nursery owners who grew ash trees -- popular along city streets and in subdivisions because they tolerate road salt -- and now can't sell them.

The revenue loss is going to hurt the association's 800 members, spokesman Chad Forcey said.

"The loss is going to be in the millions of dollars," he said. "I hesitate to say billions because I hope and pray it won't come to that, but it is going to be expensive."

Justin Ruff, owner of Admiral Tree Service in Wexford, submitted samples from two ash trees he removed Monday in Cranberry to the USDA for study. He said that even tree removal services aren't excited about the possibility of increased business due to dying ash trees.

Gazing at three 70-year-old dead ash trees towering above a home in Cranberry yesterday, Coanne O'Hern, USDA plant health director for Pennsylvania, shook her head.

"They're hazard trees," she said. "All you need is the right storm and you'll hear them cracking as they fall."

Additional Information:

Making the best of it

Communities in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, where emerald ash borers have been destroying ash trees for several years, have devised creative ways to cope:

&#149 The Sandusky County Park District in Ohio used ash trees to renovate a historic barn.

&#149 Workers in Monroe, Mich., built park benches, picnic tables and sign posts from dead ash.

&#149 Ash floors and paneling are being installed in a library in Ann Arbor, Mich.

&#149 A wood-burning power plant in Flint, Mich., burns about 300,000 tons of ash a year.

&#149 The first infested ash tree cut down in Grosse Pointe, Mich., was turned into a bench that sits in city hall.

&#149 Little Leaguers in Wilmette and Evanston, two infested Chicago suburbs, will get ash baseball bats made from the dead trees.

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