June 24, 2008

Smokies Officials Concerned About Tree-Killing Beetle

KNOXVILLE - A little green beetle has killed millions of ash trees in Michigan and the bugs may be spreading south.

Officials at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are worried the Asian emerald ash borer could be brought into the park on visitors' firewood.

Park crews already are waging a costly and time-consuming battle against the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect that destroys hemlock trees. Biologists say it's only a matter of time before the emerald ash borer reaches the Smokies.

Officials have placed traps for the beetles at campgrounds, hoping for an early warning of their arrival.

Ash trees are hardy and have resisted insect infestations and disease in the past, but the emerald ash borer kills all four native ash species - green, white, blue and black. Two of those species, green and white, live in the Smokies.

Since it first appeared in Michigan in 2002, the emerald ash borer has spread to Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

A quarantine placed on all seven states does not allow firewood to be transported out of those areas. Nonetheless, park biologists say that is the most likely way the beetle will arrive in the Smokies.

"Campers will haul firewood into the park from great distances to make sure they have it," park biologist Glenn Taylor said, even though firewood is sold at the park's larger campgrounds and stores bordering the park.

Taylor said more than 1,600 campers brought firewood into Cades Cove campground in 2007, including 25 who were visiting from quarantined counties in Ohio and Michigan.

The park's campground staff does not have the authority to seize the firewood. It can only ask that it be burned immediately.

Ash trees produce seeds that are eaten by birds and mammals and the tree's wood is commonly used in hardwood flooring, tool handles and baseball bats.

Adult emerald ash borers lay their eggs on the bark of the trees, then the larvae tunnels beneath the bark and disrupts the tree's ability to circulate nutrients and fluids. The tree usually dies in one to three years.

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