DALTON -- The tree-destroying emerald ash borer has been found in Dalton, threatening the health of local forests and raising the specter of a quarantine on wood harvested in the county.
State officials announced Wednesday that they found a single ash borer late last month on one of the 700 purple prism traps set in trees throughout Western Massachusetts to detect the tiny, metallic green beetle’s presence.
"This is not a huge surprise," said Ed Lambert, the state commissioner for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, suggesting it was only a matter of time before the beetle found its way into Massachusetts.
An infestation was detected a year ago just 40 miles over the border in New York, and Lambert said Massachusetts is the 18th state to find the beetle living within its borders.
Though the beetle’s entrance into Massachusetts was perhaps inevitable, slowing its spread now that it’s here is critical, he said.
An ash borer can kill a healthy ash tree in three to five years. It lays eggs in the tree’s bark. When they hatch, the larvae that spring out feed on the wood between the bark and trunk, stopping the flow of nutrients to the rest of the tree.
When the beetle hits a tree, there’s almost no saving it, said Ken Gooch, the state’s forest health program director.
"Once it’s infested, it’s pretty much going to be a dead tree," he said.
Nate Sigert, a forest etymologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said the next step is to conduct a more intensive study in the area immediately surrounding the Kirchner Road trap that turned up the state’s first beetle. Last month’s find could be indicative of a larger infestation or it could be an isolated case, he said.
From there, the state and federal government will develop a plan to slow the spread of the beetle without causing a major disruption to local businesses that trade in forest products, officials said.
"This is a significant pest and it has caused the loss of millions of ash trees in the country and impacted local and regional economies as a result," Lambert said.
The ash borer poses a particular threat to forests in the Berkshires, which contain 64 percent of the 45 million ash trees in the state.
Ash is valuable hardwood and the forest products industry is a $500 million a year business in the state, much of it concentrated in Berkshire County.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is already instituting regulations on how ash products leaving Berkshire County must be treated. And in other states where the beetle has been found, regulations on intra-state movement of wood have been instituted. Bans on movement of all firewood are common.
Jeff Poirier, president of a sawmill in Chesterfield called Berkshire Hardwoods Inc., said the beetle’s presence has long been rumored, but that doesn’t lessen the blow of its official arrival.
The housing crunch has depressed demand for the wood he produces, and ash is about 15 percent of his business, he said. Poirier hopes any quarantine is statewide, rather than just local, so his customer base for ash won’t shrink as severely. But it’s bad news either way, he said.
"One word: devastating," Poirier said. "It’s going to hurt us a lot."
Andy Finton, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, said that, in addition to impacting the forest products industry, ash plays a significant role in the ecology of Berkshire forests.
"It will definitely be missed and have an impact on the health and vitality of our forests," Finton said.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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Meet the beetles
State officials are urging residents to learn the signs of emerald ash borer tree damage and to report any sightings. Look for:
n D-shaped exit holes in the bark of ash trees.
n Dying parts in the upper third of the tree canopy.
n Sprouting of branches just below the dead area.
n The ash borer is a tiny, emerald-green metallic beetle so small that seven could fit on the head of a penny.
To report suspicious tree damage or insect sightings: www.massnrc.org/pests or (866) 322-4512.
For more information about emerald ash borers: www.emeraldashborer.info.