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Grant restores beetle-plagued tribal forest

Looking up an ash tree infested by emerald ash borer.
EAB galleries formed under the bark of an ash tree. Once hatched, EAB larvae eat their way through the tree’s vascular tissues in a meandering pattern that ultimately affects the tree’s ability to move nutrients and water from the roots to the crown, effectively killing the tree. Courtesy photo by Angello Johnson, Environment Division land resources technician, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.

NEW YORK—The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe used a $99,998 USDA Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to remove emerald ash borer-plagued ash trees and replace them with a diverse selection of trees to restore a forest in upstate New York.

The initiative serves to protect and restore the Great Lakes, one of the largest surface fresh water systems in the world. The Forest Service awards competitive grants to assist organizations and communities to improve habitats and water quality.

EAB is one of the most destructive ash tree-killing pests in North America. Native to Asia, the insect was first detected on this continent in southeastern Michigan over two decades ago. Since then, its population has killed nearly all North American ash trees in its path, which now spans both East and West coasts.

As EAB spread across the continent it gradually made its way to the U.S.–Canadian border in northern New York and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe territory there. Jessica Raspitha, forest restoration project manager for the tribe, said the EAB possibly made its way there following ash trees lining the roads that were planted there in the 1970s.

In 2016, the tribe first detected EAB on its territory in Akwesasne, said Raspitha. “Since then, we’ve found it on every corner. Our territory is about 10,000 acres, and EAB has shown up nearly everywhere since then. There are just a few isolated spots that haven’t shown infestation yet.”

There are 16 native ash species that are susceptible to EAB, she said. A 2015 tribal inventory estimated there were 3,540 ash trees on their land, about 13.5%, making ash the dominant species in their forest.

Ash is very important to traditional basketry, and ash trees need to be a certain size before being used in basket weaving. “If the ash is all gone there is no replacement for this resource. When you lose the resources, you lose the cultural practice that goes with it,” said Raspitha.

Three people planting trees.
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Land Resources staff planting trees as part of the ash canopy loss restoration project. Courtesy photo by Normand Genier, Environment Division tribal forester, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Roughly 360 ash trees were taken down after the detection and another 360 trees and shrubs from 26 species, including American hornbeam, eastern red bud, red maple and black tupelo, were later planted in their place. Just under half those trees came from the local tribal tree nursery, which is intended to meet all restoration needs for native trees and shrubs.

The pandemic significantly affected initial restoration efforts, Raspitha said. “When COVID started, almost all our staff was laid off. In 2020, only my supervisor and I were left. We couldn’t keep up with all the work that needed to be done. The summer of 2020 was particularly dry, and we had a tough time keeping up with watering the newly planted trees. Of the 360 trees for this project, we had some mortality and those that died were replaced in 2021.”

Map shows sites where trees effected by emerald ash borer were removed. Map shows highway Route 37 corridor in upstate New York.
This map shows project planting sites located along the highway Route 37 corridor where affected trees were removed. Map courtesy of Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.  

The tribe is keeping some of the ash in place for later use and for the purpose of collecting seeds. They started treating some ash through insecticide and bio-controls such as a parasitoid wasp that preys on EAB. The tribe did its first wasp release two years ago in partnership with APHIS, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Forest Service.

Forest Service watershed forester and grant monitor for this project Karl Honkonen said, “This ash canopy replacement project was well executed by tribal staff during a challenging time due to pandemic restrictions. The diversity of newly planted trees will help restore water quality and provide many other ecosystem services within the Lake Ontario Watershed.”

This story is part of a series and highlights one of the 14 common themes identified in the 2020 Eastern Region State Forest Action Plan summary report. The theme for April 2023 is Forest Health.


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