McFeely: Moorhead starts to kiss its ash goodbye

City has removed 300 ash trees thus far, hopes to treat 5,000 with chemical over the next three years

The stump is all that remains of an ash tree removed from south Moorhead in an effort to stop the spread of the emerald ash borer.
Mike McFeely / The Forum

MOORHEAD — The headline seemed clever when it popped off the fingertips, but a Google search shows there are many clever headline writers in American cities infested by the emerald ash borer.

And the articles underneath the headlines are never equally flippant.

Freshly sawed-off stumps already litter some boulevards in south Moorhead near the Meadows Golf Course. The space above them was once occupied by ash trees, planted years ago to provide shade and beauty — the way elm trees once provided shade and beauty along city streets.

Dutch elm disease wreaked havoc with America's elms in the previous century, the fungus killing an estimated 40 million of the trees after it spread from Europe in the 1930s. One of their replacement trees was the ash, hardy and common in this part of the world.

Now it's deja vu all over again.


Emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle from Asia, is making its way across the United States, state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city. It's estimated the bug has killed tens of million of ash trees already in this country since it was first discovered in Michigan in 2002.

It's known to be in 36 states and five Canadian provinces. And it's just getting started.

An emerald ash borer beetle on a green leaf. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum
An emerald ash borer beetle on a green leaf.
Thinkstock / Special to The Forum

It was discovered in Moorhead in March. Two months later, the impact is already visible.

"It's going to be a mess," Moorhead city forester Trent Wise said. "I'm curious to see where it goes."

Wise isn't being negative and surely isn't capitulating to the EAB, as it's known. There are steps the city is taking to minimize the loss of ash trees on public property. But ... the evidence is the evidence.

The insect has marched unabated across the country for years. In Minnesota, as reported in March by The Forum, the Twin Cities suburb of Maplewood has been overwhelmed by EAB. And in Duluth, the city council essentially cried "uncle" and is sawing down ash trees as fast as possible.

"It can be extremely devastating," Wise said. "We have the advantage of other cities going through this, and there have been technological advances. And we have cold weather, which will slow the beetles somewhat. It won't stop them, but it's going to slow it down."

Still, there's a reason foresters use the term "death curve" when talking about infected ash trees. In the first five years, EAB kills about 10% of the ash trees. The next five years, as the beetles take hold and spread, 80% of the ashes are killed off. Some "death curves" show 100% mortality for localized ash trees 15 years after the original infestation.


Moorhead has a plan. The first EAB in the city were discovered near the Meadows (although officials later found a tree near the railroad tracks in Dilworth that was heavily infested). So far crews have removed 300 ash trees on public property, parks and boulevards, within an 8-10 block radius of the original infestation.

The city has 6,800 ash trees on public property, Wise said, and the hope is to treat 5,000 of those on a three-year cycle by injecting an anti-EAB chemical into their trunks. The rest of the city's public ash inventory will be removed.

EAB death curve.png
A chart showing the "death curve" for ash trees once infested by the emerald ash borer.
Graphic courtesy City of Moorhead

Ash trees on private property and along the Red River corridor are another story.

Homeowners are urged to make a decision now about their ash trees. They can choose to treat the tree against the ash borer or have it removed. Doing nothing will result in the trees becoming infested with EAB, dying and having to be removed anyway.

"If you're not going to do anything, you're better off having it removed now because you're going to have to remove it eventually anyway. And if you're not going to treat the tree or have it removed, it's going to become infested and help spread the disease so it's exacerbating the problem," Wise said.

As for the forested areas along the river, there's little hope of stopping the bugs.

"We don't have the resources or really any way to manage that, so it's going to run its course," Wise said.

It's estimated Minnesota has 1 billion ash trees, a vast majority of which we can apparently kiss goodbye. There's nothing flippant about that.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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