Ash Borer: On the Ground Report

Jan 2, 2015

One of the biggest stories concerning Iowa’s natural resources last year was the onslaught of an insect that will wipe out tens of millions of ash trees across the state. Iowa Public Radio’s Rick Fredericksen closed out 2014 with a field trip to a forest south of Des Moines, known as “ground zero.”

Four of us climbed aboard an all-terrain vehicle for an excursion along remote hillsides, across ravines, and over a creek, arriving in a densely timbered patch of eastern Lucas County. Jeremy Cochran is District Forester for the Department of Natural Resources.

“We sort of call this ground zero for us locally, and we’re seeing obvious signs in the ash trees in the forest, about five to six miles away from this original site, so we’re standing on the cliff, so to speak, and just about to fall off, to see the destruction of our ash species in Iowa.”

The Emerald Ash Borer’s presence here is the first significant find beyond urban areas. Most of Iowa’s woodlands are private; the farmer who owns this land gave us access on the condition we don’t disclose the location. 

“We can peel the tree here, I have a draw knife, and we’ll start where there’s flecking.”

Ash is only a small percentage of this forest, but Cochran says the Asian beetle has been here for probably five years. One of the first indicators is woodpecker damage, known as flecking, as they peck through the bark to feast on larvae. Cochran brought along a sharp cutting tool.

“When they’re very sharp they’re extremely good. Oh wow, okay so now were through the outer bark, were down to the cambium of the tree, which is the living layer of cells.  Those are the tunnels. That’s the tunnels we call galleries, this is a mass this is completely covered this is more than we would expect on anything. If this was a human what condition would this tree be in now? Death.”   

The DNR’s Mike Kintner joined us from the Quad Cities and says he was “blown away” by all the woodpecker damage.

“Generally speaking, in past things we’ve heard about Emerald Ash Borer, once it hits a forested area and has a chance to get a spread in leaps and bounds that can potentially be more concerning. It can sometimes be an indicator that it is more widespread than an initial community find.” 

The insect may have already invaded Iowa’s largest publicly-owned woodlands. One unit of Stephens State Forest is just a couple miles from this epicenter. The DNR’s Jessica Flatt manages the 15,000 acre park and says her number one concern is loss of diversity.

“We look in this forest here for example and we’re starting to see some decline of the black oak and the red oak, probably some oak wilt problems there, now we’ve lost the ash to Emerald Ash Borer, we’re not going to have a lot left in here besides white oak, then were looking at a mono culture and that’s trouble ahead cause what if we start having a pest that attacks white oak?

In Iowa cities and towns, the doomed ash trees are being removed and replaced. In remote woodlands like this, foresters say most will be left to decompose.  

“Yep, become topsoil, become habitat, obviously the woodpeckers are gaining form it, salamanders, cavity nesters, so they’ll all benefit from it. It’s just a sad thing that a whole species of tree is going to be gone from our landscape.”

The Emerald Ash Borer has already been confirmed in 18 counties; everyone on this journey into Iowa’s outback predicts the area will expand markedly in 2015. In Lucas County, an hour south of Des Moines, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.