PROSPECT — When Mayor Robert Chatfield peeled away the bark of a stately ash tree on Old Log Town Road on Friday, a 5-foot section fell, revealing a network of squiggly lines across the hardwood. The network of soft trails covering the wood was the work of the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that promises to devastate Connecticut’s ash trees over the next decade.
For Prospect, the first town in the state to discover the insect in 2012, the ash borer’s mark is already impacting the landscape, and the budget. A number of trees along the town’s roads are marked with an orange “x,” indicating they’re ready to be cut down.
“I know as soon as all the leaves get green, people that were unaware of this are going to start calling and asking what’s going on,” Chatfield said.
Chatfield said Prospect has spent $125,000 to remove dead ash trees since 2012. The town transferred an extra $25,000 from the ice and snow account to the tree removal account last week to keep up with demand.
The bug has now spread to about half of the state, with New Haven county at the epicenter of the invasion. Now it’s up to towns to figure out how to pay for removing the trees killed by the emerald ash borer.
“When I take down a tree, I leave the wood along the road for the wood fairies to pick up,” Chatfield said. “That saves us money.”
Although ash makes good firewood, the Connecticut Urban Forest Council recommends burning only as a last resort because the movement of firewood can help spread the insect. The entire state is under quarantine, and the wood is not allowed to be moved across state lines.
The wood can be chipped for mulch, used as lumber, or sold.
Although the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is working to find ways to stop the ash borer, towns need to plan for the loss of all their ash trees in the next 10 to 15 years, said Chris Donnelly, state urban forestry coordinator.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is working establish a biological control in the form of a wasp that will work to reduce the numbers of ash borers and give the ash trees a fighting chance, Donnelly said.
“We’re not throwing the towel on this at all,” he said, but municipal tree managers “can’t just sit there and hope the cavalry arrives in time.”
Some towns, like Southbury, have turned to commercial insecticides that can be injected into individual trees. The treatment must be repeated every two years for the duration of the infestation.
About 2 to 3 percent of the state’s tree population is ash, Donnelly said, though it’s higher in certain parts of Litchfield and Tolland counties.
“Unless they are willing to treat the trees, it pretty much probably should be assumed by most people throughout the state that their ash trees will be dead by the time 15 years go by,” Donnelly said.
Although Donnelly said it’s cheaper to cut the trees down before they’re completely dead, many towns are waiting.
Donnelly said the location of dead ash trees in places where people are likely to congregate is a major concern: The trees quickly turn brittle and start falling apart. Out in the woods, however, dead trees can become dens for wildlife, he said.
The cost to remove a tree varies depending on the size of the tree and whether it’s entangled in wires or close to structures. Local tree wardens said it costs anywhere from $500 to $5,000 per tree.
If a typical community has, for example, 20,000 street trees, 400 to 600 would be ash trees. At $1,000 per tree to take them down, it would cost $400,000 to $600,000 to remove them.
In Beacon Falls, assistant foreman James Gracy said the budget for tree removal tripled the past two years from what it was three years ago.
This year, he said, the budget is already depleted and won’t replenish until July 1. The town had to transfer money to take down five more trees this year, he said.
“It’s pretty bad,” Gracy said. “We didn’t to a lot of tree cutting before this and it just hit us all of a sudden.”