Signs of the borers effect on trees.
Signs of the borers effect on trees.


Editor’s note: This web version contains information not included in the print version published Feb. 6 such as the number of trees taken down so far and other information as Steve Woods did not respond to questions until after press deadline. 

Ash trees were a popular choice to replace the elms that once lined streets across the U.S., but had succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1930s. Now those ash trees planted 90 years ago are fighting an unwanted invader, and so are the municipalities where they were planted.

In Montclair, 2,000 ash trees on public property — roughly 10 percent of the township's stock — are set for the chopping block over the next two years in order to fight the emerald ash borer.

The emerald ash borer was first identified in 2002 after ravaging the ash tree stock of Detroit, after making its way from China probably on a packing pallet loaded onto a freighter, said Dirk Vanderklein, professor of biology at Montclair State University. The insects spread quickly through the transportation of firewood, wooden pallets and nursery trees, making their way through the U.S. coming to New Jersey in 2014 and to Montclair in August 2016.

Montclair has begun cutting down 2,000 of its Ash trees in an attempt to fight the little green invader — the Emerald Ash Borer.
Montclair has begun cutting down 2,000 of its Ash trees in an attempt to fight the little green invader — the Emerald Ash Borer.

The insects have impacted Montclair’s population of ash trees, hitting trees whether they are healthy or in distress, Vanderklein says, although he added that they hit unhealthy trees first.

The larvae bore into the trees and feed under the bark, leaving visible tracks underneath. The feeding disrupts the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients, resulting in dieback and bark splitting, according to the Arbor Day Foundation.

“They disrupt the tree’s ability to move water and nutrients to the roots and leaves,” said Vanderklein.

Ash trees are a popular variety of street tree in many towns, Community Services director Steve Woods said in a release announcing Montclair’s plan to fight the ash borers.

“Large numbers of them were planted because they provided an attractive canopy, were a relatively easy tree to maintain and worked well within the tight sidewalk planting belts that are very common throughout the township,” Woods said.

It’s also a lesson in why large numbers of one tree should not be planted throughout a town. In the case of disease or insect infestation specific to a particular species, an area’s canopy can be completely destroyed.  

Today, addressing the emerald ash borer is a $10 billion business throughout the U.S., with two preferred methods: removal of infested trees, and treating the soil with chemical injections to suppress the insect population. Scientists are also studying the effects of using other insects to kill off the ash borer, said Vanderklein.

Treatment costs can run as high as $600 per tree, which could wind up costing the township $1.2 million if it went that route.

Vanderklein suggested that the town use a combination of both treatment and removal — treating “high-value” large, healthy trees, and those slightly infested, while taking the badly infested ones down.

Infested trees first show signs of the insect at the top of the tree with dying limbs, which begin to break off and fall. The dead limbs are also susceptible to woodpeckers, making them even more weak and precarious. 

In the case of a limb falling on a car, a home, or a person the municipality would be liable. As a result, Montclair has decided that removing all 2,000 ash trees is the best method.

“Given the environmental and safety concerns with the use of large amounts of pesticide to combat this pest, as well as the estimated 2,000 ash trees located within township properties, Montclair has decided to remove all ash trees. Many other municipalities have also taken this course of action for similar reasons,” according to Woods.

Montclair began removing the ash trees in 2018. Streets with Ash trees included: Melrose Place, Fairfield Street, Frederick Street, Warren Street, Northview Avenue, Orange Road and North Fullerton Avenue, and Park Street, according to a list published last year on the township website. According to Woods, in 2019, there were 312 Ash trees removed throughout the township. Some of the streets included, but not limited to, are Chester Road, Inwood Avenue, Ardsley Road, Columbus Avenue, Orange Road, Lincoln Street and High Street.

Last summer, the town focused on removal projects around schools. 

“Future removals will be prioritized, based on the severity of the bark flecking that may be present, increased basal sprouting, and/or crown dieback. Emerald Ash Borer is not the only cause of Ash tree death, but is currently a primary reason for the species decline,” Woods said.

Residents with trees being removed from in front of their residences are notified through a letter left at each residence.  

“If they don’t see these letters, a special marking is painted at the base of each tree that is being removed,” Wood said.

Infected trees that are taken down will be chipped and/or burned. The tree’s wood must stay within the municipality to avoid transferring the insects to another municipality, said Vanderklein.

Woods said Montclair is disposing of the Ash wood at licensed recycling facilities.

Montclair will be replacing the ash trees with other trees on a one-to-one basis, but not all trees will be replaced in the same locations. According to Woods, if two trees are removed in front of a particular residence, for example, replacing both trees at the same address may not be appropriate and only one will be replanted. An additional tree would be planted elsewhere in town to maintain the tree inventory.

In November 2019, 250 shade trees were planted. A spring planting bid for 250 trees is being prepared and scheduled for an April 22 planting start. An additional 200-250 trees will be placed out for bid later this summer for Fall 2020, said Woods.

The town hired RichView Consulting to serve as the town’s arborist last April, taking over for Steve Schuckman.

The township is also asking residents to assess ash trees on their private properties. Since urban trees are hard to assess, it's suggested that residents call in professional tree experts.

“On the smaller residential scale, treatment may be a viable option if you want to attempt to save a particular tree,” Woods said. “Contact a New Jersey Licensed Tree Expert to obtain more information on the treatment that is available and to determine whether the tree is a viable candidate for the treatment option.”

But Vanderklein says it may be more costly to just remove all the ash trees in the township, than to try and save some. Especially at risk is Montclair’s established tree canopy as a whole. And also he notes, home values on streets where the ash trees are being removed. 

“Trees help with heating, providing a wind barrier in winter, and cooling in the summer, providing shade. And they help with channeling water away from the home,” he said. 

The township may soon have to contend with the invasive spotted lantern fly, which destroys fruit trees, ornamental trees and some other shade trees. 

Representatives from the Montclair Environmental Commission did not return an email requesting more information about the ash tree plight in Montclair.