LONDON AND THUNDER BAY — Throughout southern Ontario — and now in Thunder Bay and Quebec — municipalities are fighting to save their ash trees from the emerald ash borer with no help from the federal government.
The tiny insect’s larvae kill the trees by eating the wood just beneath the bark, destroying the ash’s ability to send nutrients and water from its roots to its leaves. Besides being unattractive, dead ash trees break down quickly and pose falling hazards. The beetle has been known to kill 99 per cent of ash in forests — since it was first spotted in the province in 2002, thousands of ash have been infested.
As yet, research hasn’t yet turned up any effective means of permanently safeguarding them. So most municipalities focus on protecting a few prized trees, while safely and gradually removing as much of the remaining ash population as their budgets allow.
It’s an expensive process. A pesticide application for an ash with a 20-centimetre radius costs $100 — the price tag for trees with larger trunks is higher. Treatments must be made once every two years. And removing a tree can cost thousands of dollars.
“This is probably the most expensive pest that we’ve had to deal with in the city,” says Ray Vendrig, Toronto’s acting manager of urban forest renewal. In 2010, Toronto allocated $74.5 million over 10 years to deal with the problem.
Neither the provincial nor the federal government provides money or standards to assist municipalities with the fight, so it’s up to individual municipalities to decide how they’re going to tackle the problem.
Guelph (population 130,000) has dedicated millions to the cause — initially promising $10 million over 10 years, but later reducing the amount to $6 to $8 million over the same period.
Its approach closely resembles Toronto’s: it locates the ash, monitors for infestations, removes badly affected trees, and treats healthier trees with insecticides to extend their lives (so as either to protect them indefinitely or to keep them alive until removal funding becomes available).
While Toronto began treatment two years after discovering the insect in the city, Guelph’s management effort was delayed by three years after the first reported sighting because the city was then in the midst of preparing the administrative groundwork for a forest management plan. Treatment moved ahead in 2014.
St. Thomas, a 20-minute drive south of London, has made no preservation attempts, but has instead been slowly and steadily removing all its ash.
Julie Tucker, the city’s arborist, explains that when the toll being taken on St. Thomas’s ash trees became apparent in 2012, the city lacked the staff and financial resources to identify which trees were worth saving. Since then, they’ve tried to cope by just removing trees until the city’s regular forestry budget is exhausted.
Timea Filer, an urban forestry field technologist in Guelph, contends that a haphazard approach to containment and prevention creates opportunities for the infestation to spread. “If some communities further to the south of Guelph were treating it, maybe it never would have moved this far.”
Differences in how infestations are handled on public and private properties within the same municipality also contribute to the risk of spread, she adds.
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Although municipalities are responsible for controlling the insect on public property, residents are typically expected to fend for themselves. Guelph has run awareness campaigns — as has Toronto and other municipalities tackling the pest — but because of the costs involved, people often take action only when their tree is already dying or dead. “A lot of people don’t understand the urgency or the consequences [of waiting],” Filer says.
Thunder Bay, one of the most recently infested communities, has pledged $6.3 million over 10 years to treat the more mature third of its 4,600 ash trees and remove the rest. But the plan will have long-term implications for the parks system. Lacking support from other levels of government, the campaign is currently being funded through the infrastructure budget. The waterfront has recently been renovated, but the parks department issued a report in January showing other areas of the municipality — more than half of its parks, sports fields, docks, and parking lots — are in “very poor condition.” The city’s annual infrastructure deficit has increased by $10 million per year since 2014, and now sits at $27 million.
During the 2017 budget process, city councillor Andrew Foulds called the parks deficit “death by a thousand cuts.” He noted that the ash borer is believed to have been transported to Thunder Bay in shipping crates or pallets — which fall under the purview of Transport Canada.
“It continues to be another assault on some of the soft services of a community that are valued by the citizens,” he says. “It’s extremely frustrating that other levels of government don’t recognize the struggles of municipalities and don’t recognize this as a significant issue.”
Cam Guthrie, Guelph’s mayor, insists that decisions about how best to approach the management of the ash borer should be made at the local level by municipalities: “We’re the ones with the boots on the ground. We should know what is best somehow to address the situation, and sometimes with another layer of government getting involved, it may not go as smoothly.”
But Paul Jorgenson, a spokesperson for the non-profit Tree Canada, argues that creating a coordinated response to the infestation — which has now moved east into Quebec — is an example of why a national urban forest strategy is needed. Tree Canada has begun to help residents in some communities offset the costs of removing trees to try to stem the bug’s spread. Jorgenson believes that it may still be possible to contain the insect, but that “it’s going to need more than whatever we’ve marshalled at it so far.
“Money is certainly a component of that, but marshalling it in a coherent, coordinated fashion is also going to be really important.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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