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Emerald ash borer likely to restrict wood movement

  • Jeff Poirier is president of Berkshire Hardwoods in Chesterfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Logs (not ash) in the yard at Berkshire Hardwoods in Chesterfield on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Logs are processed on the head saw at Berkshire Hardwoods in Chesterfield on Tuesday. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Claude Dupont operates the band resaw at Berkshire Hardwoods in Chesterfield on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jeff Poirier is president of Berkshire Hardwoods in Chesterfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Jeffrey Poirier, owner of the Chesterfield business Berkshire Hardwoods, is certain that state officials are about to announce restrictions on the movement of wood products, and he’s equally sure of the impact on his business.

“It will be devastating,” he said. “It’s going to hurt us a lot.”

The reason for the imminent quarantine is the detection Aug. 31 of a single emerald ash borer in Dalton in Berkshire County. This tiny green insect, which first came to the U.S. from China in a wooden packing crate, has obliterated the ash trees of Michigan since it was discovered there 10 years ago. It has no natural enemies, has destroyed millions of ash trees, and has been moving relentlessly eastward.

“Next month, they could find it in Hampshire County,” said Poirier, who operates a sawmill and a small firewood processing business. “There’s no stopping it. You can slow it down, and that’s why you have a quarantine.”

State officials are considering several quarantine scenarios. If they restrict the movement of wood products out of Berkshire County, that could be most effective in limiting the spread of the insect, but this option would have the most impact on the county’s forest industry. They could impose the quarantine on the entire state, which would be less onerous to the industry but might allow the insect to spread to other counties much faster. Or state officials could include one or more of the three counties in the Pioneer Valley in the quarantine.

Movement of ash wood products outside the quarantine zone will require special permission, and all firewood of a hardwood species will be restricted. The state will probably announce the quarantine just after the Thanksgiving weekend, said S.J. Port, spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Whatever happens, forest landowners and industry professionals say they hope the state acts slowly, and note that since the ash borer is now dormant, there may be time to make a carefully thought-out plan.

The quarantine will apply to all firewood, not just ash. Port encouraged woodstove owners to buy local and ask their dealers where their wood comes from. “Local” means the firewood has not traveled more than 20 miles, she said. Most firewood sold in supermarkets has been heat-treated to kill insects and is safe to buy, she said.

“But don’t take it from your cabin in the woods of Berkshire County back to your fireplace in Milton,” Port said. “The biggest threat for the movement of harmful insects and diseases is from property owners and the tree care industry moving green, untreated wood and plant materials.”

For his part, Poirier said he’d like to see the entire state be quarantined, because then wood products could freely move around within the state even if they couldn’t move to another state. If just Berkshire County is quarantined, no ash trees could be moved to sawmills in the rest of the state, and that would be bad for an industry that’s already been hurt by state regulations, falling lumber prices and the lack of management of state forests, he said.

The wood that Berkshire Hardwoods processes in Chesterfield is used in products sold all over the world, Poirier said. There’s only one sawmill in Berkshire County, and it’s not equipped to handle all the ash trees in the county, he said.

As for firewood, he’s not worried about established dealers unknowingly causing the spread of the emerald ash borer, because they know their tree species and are responsible enough to monitor their own operations, he said.

“But the guy with a pickup and a chainsaw, or a family going camping and bringing wood to their backyard, that’s a big problem,” he said. “Those folks do need some restrictions on them.”

Serious threat

Only 4 percent of the trees in Massachusetts are ash, Port said. Some 80 percent of the state’s ash trees grow west of the Connecticut River.

The state’s wood products industry is worth about $500 million annually, DCR Commissioner Ed Lambert said.

“The emerald ash borer brings a very serious threat to our ash trees, and we are not taking its presence lightly,” he said. “We are taking swift action to address the infestation, and are working to mitigate any impact an infestation could bring.”

The DCR held public meetings on the problem Oct. 16 and 17 in Pittsfield and Sturbridge. It is receiving public comments through Nov. 21 by email at dcr.updates@state.ma.us or by phone at (617) 626-4974.

If the state does not impose a quarantine, the federal government will, Port said. It could have a big impact on furniture makers and flooring producers if they can’t get ash wood from Berkshire County, she said.

White ash wood is also used for tool handles, baseball bats, railroad ties, canoe paddles, snowshoes, boats and doors. Many Native American cultures rely on ash trees for making baskets, lacrosse sticks, pipe stems, flutes and medicines.

Native Lumber of Belchertown, which specializes in baseball bats, has already been affected by the quarantine on ash wood in New York state, said owner Janis Sugrue. Her company has moved more into making bats out of hard maple and birch wood, she said.

“It’s already had a big impact,” she said. If the quarantine is imposed on Berkshire County, “it will make it even harder to get ash logs in.”

Asked if it is indeed inevitable that the emerald ash borer will continue to move eastward, Port said, “The only thing we can do is do our best to keep that from happening.”

W.D. Cowls Inc. of Amherst owns more than 100 parcels of land in 30 towns, mostly in Hampshire and Franklin counties. Ash trees constitute 2.7 percent of the company’s saw log volume, and their value is $199,700, president Cinda Jones said.

The company would be unable to move pole wood outside the quarantine zone, and forest health could decline if low-grade wood couldn’t be processed, she said.

“We’ve urged them to make the quarantine area as small as possible and allow the industry a chance to harvest what we can before the bug gets here,” Jones said in an interview. She has suggested to DCR ways to allow the safe transport of non-ash wood, such as mandating that log trucks be overseen by a licensed forester or developing ways to kill the insects by fumigation.

Because the emerald ash borer is dormant from October through March, the DCR should go slow and consider all quarantine scenarios, said Jeffrey Hutchins, executive director of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, which represents forest landowners and industry professionals.

“Whereas little information has been gathered about the extent and intensity of the infestation, we ask that the commonwealth consider the wisdom of a hasty quarantine zone decision that encompasses an entire county,” he wrote to DCR. “Although it may be argued that county lines are a convenient geopolitical boundary, there is little scientific relevance to a quarantine zone based solely on arbitrary political borders.”

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