The spread of emerald ash borer has been extremely quick, killing West Virginia's white ash trees, experts say there is no defense

By Forester Russ Richardson 2012

This summer, throughout much of southern Calhoun and Roane Counties this has become a very common sight as many residents discuss the "early fall" we seem to be having.

What has actually been happening is that we are witnessing the likely extinction of an entire species of ecologically important and economically valuable tree - white ash, as the introduced insect pest, the emerald ash borer spreads across the region killing virtually every ash tree in sight.

Introduced to eastern North America from Asia between fifteen and twenty years ago, the emerald ash borer first started killing white ash trees in Michigan and the insect was first discovered in Fayette County, West Virginia in 2007.

For several years the WV Department of Agriculture in cooperation with other government agencies, hung and monitored thousands of purple boxes around the state in an effort to watch for the arrival of EAB.

The purple boxes were actually emerald ash borer traps that were treated with a chemical designed to attract the insects and most local residents should be able to remember seeing those boxes for the last time in the summer of 2010 and 2011 when EAB were confirmed as being present in Roane, Calhoun, Wirt and Gilmer Counties.

The spread of emerald ash borer has been extremely quick because of a combination of reasons that start with the facts that EAB is not native to North America and it has no local pests, diseases or predators to slow its population growth.

When the ability of the insect to fly is also combined with the initial arrival of EAB in the middle of the country, where weather and prevailing winds come from the west, the spread of emerald ash borers from the west to the east has been rapid.


The ash tree in the above photo was harvested in the Beech Fork of Calhoun County just a couple weeks ago. Although the tree was just a few months from dying at the time it was cut, the damage from the bugs wouldn't even have been visible if the logging equipment hadn't knocked the bark off the stump.

By the time EAB's were through with this tree the inner bark of every part of the tree, its stem, branches, limbs and even roots will have been covered with these galleries.

Even small limbs and branches are attacked with no part of the ash trees left alive when the infestation is complete.

Emerald ash borers do most of their damage before the trees start to show signs of stress. By the time they finish with an ash tree the inner bark (cambium) of the ash tree is completely eaten away and results in girdling the tree, destroying the ability of the tree to get water from the roots to the leaves or nutrients from the leaves back to the roots and the tree quickly dies.

Although white ash only represents a small proportion of the forest in many parts of West Virginia, it is also a species found nearly everywhere in the state.

Until this time, white ash has been extremely common in old fields and abandoned ridgetop pastures and very large white ash trees can still be found as a part of nearly old fence row on some Calhoun, Roane, Wirt and Jackson County farms.

For most of West Virginia, white ash composes less than 4% of the trees in the forest but scattered locations, especially in Calhoun, Roane and Wirt have old pastures and fertile upland areas where over half the forest cover is white ash.

If all the white ash trees expected to die in Calhoun County as a result of the emerald ash borers were concentrated in one area, the total acreage covered would be much larger than the size of Bear Fork Wilderness.

Nearly all area roadsides have large numbers of white ash along the right of ways and over the years hundreds of local people have landscaped around their homes and driveways with white ash because it is easy to transplant, it is fast growing, attractive and clean because it has small seeds and leaves are small and rot quickly.

Today, a drive along US 33/119 between Arnoldsburg and Spencer or Route 16 anywhere in Calhoun County will provide ample opportunities to see dying white ash as hundreds of roadside trees appear to be dead or dying. One extremely good example is heading west on 33 at the crest of Liberty Hill where several large dead ash trees are visible as you head down the hill towards Leatherbark.

Because we are close to the end of a growing season that has been horribly hard on local forests and woodland to the point that almost no vegetation looks healthy, the damage to ash trees is being disguised.

One trait white ash shares with black walnut is that the trees normally do not shed their leaves until the morning after the first killing frost. Because temperatures have been nowhere close to freezing for months, death from emerald ash borers is most likely the reason for most ash trees not having leaves.

Communities like Spencer and Grantsville are not equipped to deal with thousands of dying trees along city streets and parks and most West Virginia towns and villages have no tree wardens and no money set aside to deal with the untold hazards that will develop as the dead white ash rapidly decompose next summer, creating both a financial and legal burden that almost no one is prepared for.

Not since the arrival of chestnut blight almost 100 years ago when it wiped out American chestnut has any tree killing organism spread through the region as quickly.

In less than thirty years American chestnut went from being the most common tree east of the Mississippi River to commercially extinct in North America.

Although white ash has never been as common as the oaks that West Virginians hold dear the tree has long been prized for its' strength, straight grain and utility.

For several years during the 1970s white ash rivaled black walnut for value when it was sought after for veneer, used for tennis rackets, snow shoes, base ball bats, splints for hand made baskets, shovel and tool handles and high quality plywood that were turned into paneling.

To get an idea for how much artisans and craftsmen appreciate the beauty and utility of white ash for furniture a trip to Tamarack in Beckley is probably worth the drive.

Ecologically, white ash is important because in regions where yellow poplar is not common it is often the first hardwood tree to become established and grow in old pastures and numerous birds, including turkeys eat its seeds.

White ash is also important to many species of wildlife because the way dead ash limbs decay creates hollows and cavities that are favored by many animals both furred and feathered for dens and nests.

In snowier regions, foresters often retain white ash trees around natural springs and spring seeps because the seed was such an important winter food source for wild turkeys.

As firewood, white ash is very clean burning producing almost no wood ash and it contains none of the creosote that often causes chimney fires in homes that heat with wood stoves.

Finally, white ash is the only hardwood tree we have that can be cut down and burned immediately for heat without having to be dried or seasoned, a trait that is best described in an old poem:

The "Firewood Poem"

Beech wood fires are bright and clear,
If the logs are kept a year.

Chestnut's only good, they say,
If for long its laid away.

Birch and fir logs burn too fast,
Blaze up bright and do not last.

Elm wood burns like a churchyard mold,
Even the very flames are cold.

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke.

Apple wood will scent your room,
With an incense like perfume.

Oak and maple, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter cold.

But ash wood wet and ash wood dry,
A king shall warm his slippers by.