By Noah R. Bombard
In the war against the Asian Longhorned Beetle, Dodge Park has fallen.
The once thickly-forested park nestled off Randolph Street is being clear cut. In large sections where dense forest once stood, little but bare dirt and sawdust remains. When work wraps up over the next few weeks, there will be a few clusters of trees left along with the occasional tall, narrow elm stretching into the sky. It is a visually stunning casualty in the ongoing battle to eradicate the invasive beetle that – if left unchecked – officials say could spread across North America destroying one-third of the trees in the country.
From the United States Department of Agriculture and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation, which are overseeing the battle, right down to city officials and abutting property owners, there’s an undeniable sense that the problem is real – as is the need to cut down infested trees in order to kill the beetles and stop the spread. The Asian longhorn borrows deep into hardwoods laying between 35 to 90 eggs, which then turn into larvae that feed on the tree until they emerge a season later to start the whole process over. But did Dodge Park have to be cleared? That’s a question city councilors have been asking over the past several weeks.
“We all realize that any infested tree must come down,” says District 1 City Councilor Joffrey Smith.
Smith’s district was ground zero for the beetle infestation. He saw his own district’s Kendrick Field take a heavy toll when the first trees started coming down. He says councilors understand the need to cut down and grind up infected trees, “but we fought to make sure that non-infested host trees would not come down.”
Treatment vs. Cutting
It’s the inoculation program that councilors are concerned about. Although infected trees must be cut down, one of the approaches to combating the advance of the beetle is to inoculate uninfected trees in a beetle area with an insecticide that is drawn up into the tree’s vascular system. According to the USDA, the trees must be treated for three consecutive years to maximize effectiveness. The idea is that once a tree is inoculated, beetles that land on it die before they get a chance to do any serious damage. After forest workers took down 20 trees in Dodge Park last year, neighbors were encouraged when a park-wide inoculation of the other hardwoods was performed. It looked like the damage was done and the battle over. It wasn’t. The USDA began cutting trees again this year, many of which had been inoculated with one treatment last year.
“They made a commitment and told us a tree needed to be treated for three consecutive years,” Smith says. “There were thousands of trees treated last year. So, it really doesn’t make any logical sense to me.”
But part of the problem battling the invasive beetles is that the battle lines are constantly changing.
When researchers returned to Dodge Park this spring they found the beetle had spread. They discovered 93 more infested trees. More cutting would be necessary.
USDA spokesperson Rhonda Santos says the decision to cut was made along with the city’s Department of Public Works and Parks.
It wasn’t just the 93 trees that were cut, however. And this is crux of the concern of some in the city. Should every tree that’s not infected be saved?
Santos says rather than continuing to come back and find the beetle spread each year, a cooperative decision between the USDA, DCR and the city’s parks department was made to take out the trees that were closest to those infected. The inoculation program is continuing, she says, but that doesn’t mean a tree that is inoculated one year will not be cut down later. The inoculation is just one part of efforts to combat the beetle.
“Some of the miscommunication has happened because the goal with treatment really is a three year consecutive treatment cycle, but that doesn’t mean that a one-year use can’t be used to knock down the beetle population.”
“To me, it’s not a satisfactory answer,” Smith says. “The perimeter is going to be constantly changing. We’re all aware of that. Do we just keep abandoning all the non infested trees?”
The Front Line
When Kelly and Phil Barbon bought their home on Bayberry Road, one of the selling points was it was secluded. Bayberry is one of those little private roads that if you were suddenly beamed to you’d have no sense that you were anywhere near a city, let alone living in one.
“This is why we bought this house,” Kelly Barbon says. “We’re exposed now.”
You can see their little neighborhood clearly now as you drive down Randolph Road. The large forest that sat in front of their road is now a giant barren pit. The tree canopy that arched over their road is gone.
The Barbon’s have a maple tree in their front yard. It hasn’t been inspected this year yet, but they say they won’t be surprised if it has to come down.
Yet, like many residents who have been directly impacted, the Barbon’s have mixed feelings. They’re distraught to see such drastic changes to their neighborhood and are convinced their home value has dropped significantly. But they also say that representatives from the USDA and DCR have been very understanding and are working closely with neighbors in selecting new trees that workers will plant next month. It will take years for those trees to replace the stripped areas, but it’s a start.
But the Barbons say they’re confused, too, by the decision to take down so many trees.
“I think we understand that it had to be done,” Kelly Barbon says. “You could see the borough holes. They need to be stopped. It’s just difficult. I think going forward they should probably concentrate more on inoculating. It’s almost as if they’ve given up on our neighborhood. That’s it’s too much of a problem and not worth it. We don’t feel that way, obviously.”
A good thing?
Despite the graphic visual of large swaths of trees cut down, not everyone sees the sort of botanical reshifting of areas like Dodge Park as a bad thing. The Asian longhorned beetle attacks hardwoods and the species that comprises the bulk of those being felled is the Norway maple – itself an invasive species.
Colin Michael Novick, executive director of the Greater Worcester Land Trust calls them weeds.
“A weed is a plant that does not belong here, generally it belongs on another continent and – for one of a variety of biological reasons – it outperforms the native plants that are here and is eliminating them by taking over the niche they rely on as habitat,” Novick says.
That’s exactly what the Norway maple has done as it has spread out across New England forests. Unlike its cousin the sugar maple, the Norway maple tends to shade out other native species of plants and outcompete them. Basically, it takes over the forest. With the Norways cleared from areas like Dodge Park, workers can begin planting diverse native species to replace them.
“So, hitting the restart/reboot button is not a bad thing,” Novick says.
Norways attack the forest, beetles attack the Norways, man takes them both out.
Of course, it isn’t just the Norway maple that’s being cleared. A lot of indigenous trees are falling to the chainsaw, too. The beetles infest other native maples, elm, ash, birch and poplar trees, among others. But as crews continue the process of replanting areas that have been cleared, they’re replanting with diverse, native species.
Dodge Park itself was not always heavily forested either. When it was first donated to the city in the late 1800s, it was mostly open space with small clusters of trees. Of course, the city has grown exponentially in the last century. As buildings, factories and homes replaced open space, areas like Dodge Park became more forest preserves than recreation space. For the past few decades, Dodge Park has been a place people primarily go to walk their dogs, says Phil Barbon. Barton says the trails in the park were areas he cleared himself. The parks department mostly just cuts the grass and empties the trash, he says. There’s also a pavilion and picnic area that remains largely untouched from the clear cutting.
Eventually, as the new trees grow, Worcester’s parks and forests will be more diverse and healthier – eventually. That is, if the new trees can compete with the tiny Norway maples already sprouting from the forest floor. It’s all still little consolation to neighbors of Dodge Park who are now looking at what City Councilor Fredrick Rushton aptly compared to Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through Georgia. It’s not pretty.
End in sight?
Can the beetle battle be won? Officials say yes. And Illinois offers some hope. There have been no signs of the beetle in that state since the bug was declared eradicated in 2008. One of the reasons experts feel the beetle battle is winnable is due to a characteristic of the beetle itself – it’s big and lazy.
“It doesn’t like to fly,” Santos says.
Instead the beetle tends to continue to feed and lay eggs in a host tree until there simply isn’t any more room. They’re not looking to migrate. If a tree gets too crowded they’re more apt to hop over to the tree next door. If they are left with no options for trees the prefer, they will settle for other species, Santos says, but research has shown they can’t reproduce effectively in non-host species.
If forest workers can effectively identify infected trees and take them down while treating trees on the perimeter of infected areas to prevent the spread, they believe eradication is possible.
Humans are the larger danger in the potential spread of the beetle. The USDA has been conducting an extensive education campaign working closely with other neighboring states to prevent the transfer of firewood from the beetle regulated area to other states. An infestation in Holden occurred because someone brought wood from Worcester, Santos says. There are also surveys being conducted of trees in Northern New England states even though no infestation has been discovered there yet.
“We definitely believe eradication is possible and that’s not something that can be said for all invasive species,” Santos says.
Cutting down trees and grinding them up continues to be the most effective way to kill the beetles and the larvae themselves, however.
That’s something the Barbons on Bayberry Road have reluctantly come to accept.
“To be totally honest, yeah, I hate it, but it will grow back,” Phil Barbon says.