Emerald ash borer ready to strike county

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

The emerald ash borer, a beetle that has infested green, gray and black ash trees in its native Asia and around the globe, is in Minnesota.

Last March the population was as close to Elk River as the city of Shoreview, in Ramsey County, according to resource conservationist Gina Hugo from the Sherburne Soil and Water Conservation District.

Photo by Paul Rignell  Volunteer Kelly Thomas measures the circumference of a tree trunk.
Photo by Paul Rignell
Volunteer Kelly Thomas measures the circumference of a tree trunk.

As an important step to combat the emerald ash borer once it crosses enough borders to reach Sherburne County, Hugo’s office contacted city halls across the county last spring to organize a call for volunteers to walk neighborhoods for gathering data on all trees.

Hugo then met with 45 volunteers in May. Each of them took nine hours of training over two days at their respective city halls.

They learned to distinguish the several species of ash trees they could expect to find, along with maples, oaks and evergreens. The instructors showed them how to use tape measures for finding a tree’s drip line, or the diameter of its lower branches and foliage, which the volunteers recorded along with other data such as trunk circumference.

The last remaining neighborhoods to be toured on the conservation district and city project maps were in Elk River, and those walks ended in the final days of July.

Two of the city’s volunteers were Kelly Thomas and Georgeann Bianchi, who teamed up for tours in many Elk River neighborhoods that were new to them. Bianchi regularly carried a clipboard with a pen and their data sheets when walking lawn to lawn, and Thomas often noted the drip lines and other observations with a third team volunteer who would hold one end of their tape measure.

“(The instructors) really taught us what we needed to know,” said Bianchi, who logged her written data into a computer after each tour. “They covered what we did encounter.” She was familiar with data entry as a retired software developer.

For any tree in the public right of way, the width of which varied from 8 to 13 feet, Bianchi said, they went in-depth and recorded all noticeable defects such as dead branches, rotting bark, cankered trunks and girdled roots. They found challenges with many trees, as full foliage in July can help with finding accurate drip lines while maybe hiding some defects toward the trunk.

“Sometimes it’s easier to assess a tree when the leaves are off,” said Thomas, a cellular biologist who volunteers through the year as wildlife project leader for Sherburne County 4-H.

As they recorded notes about trees in required boxes on their forms, the women saw and retained other ideas for landscaping they might choose to do in their own yards.

“It is fun learning about different types of trees,” Bianchi said. “You get some ideas for what you might like.”

Thomas said they found elms and cottonwoods to be prevalent in older Elk River neighborhoods, while some species seem to dominate elsewhere, including burr oaks, sugar maples, red pines and Colorado spruce.

Property owners were told of the neighborhood tours before any volunteer wrapped the tape around a trunk, and one team member traditionally checked at the door for anyone at home on a weekday morning or whenever the teams could coordinate their walks.

Bianchi and Thomas said their maps contained very few markings for property owners that requested their lots to be excluded.

“Everybody was really friendly,” Bianchi said. “If they were home, they were great.”

Supporting this urban forestry initiative with the Department of Natural Resources, University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State University among other groups, the conservation district is pleased by the assistance from its strong volunteers, Hugo said.

“It was such a huge undertaking,” she said. “(They gave) several hours of work that someone else didn’t have to do.”

Hugo explained that upcoming steps in the process will involve budgeting to replant ash trees and other actions.

Minnesota is believed to lead the United States with nearly 1 billion ash trees, including more than 10,000 in Elk River.

An adult emerald ash borer spends warmer months on the tree surfaces, but its larvae will burrow beneath the bark and destroy the tree. One precaution that anyone can take to prevent the spread of this insect is to not transport firewood.

More information on local efforts is available at www.sherburneswcd.org.