In Praise of Ash – In Love with Ash –  Hearts and Systems Broken –  August 2022:

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When Aldo shared his now famous observation “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives….. in a world of wounds” he got it only half right.  In my experience, an ecological education opens the doors to not only the wounds but also to the joys and wonders of the world around – and within – us.  A significant, recent discovery here in northwest Oregon impels me into new sentiments and reflections on both the wonders and the wounds.  Before focusing on the “wounds”, let’s explore the “wonders”.

I sometimes wonder whether I should be worried about how deeply I have fallen in love with several of the native tree species in the forests to which we belong.  Experience teaches me to love them both in their green and growing forms but also as they live out their second lives as wood interwoven with our daily lives.  These words are being typed out on a table made from wood I know well from the standing and ailing tree that I felled, to saw log, to boards, to the table that is now a centerpiece of our home.

Years of experience in the forest have converted me from a person who struggled to just distinguish one tree species from another to a person deeply connected and committed to each unique species.  In the hills of Oregon’s Coast Range, Oregon Ash plays an important and easily underappreciated role in the warp and woof of the forests’ ecological fabric.  It grows and thrives in parts of the forestscape where few other native trees can – wet, low lying areas.  There, it takes root, grows and thrives, spreading distinctively-shaped leave to provide habitats for a wide range of other species, including insects, birds, understory plants, small mammals and others.  Our family’s path of taking responsibility for working to restore health and vitality in forests leads us to many sites where previous owners mistakenly and unsuccessfully tried to force the land to grow Douglas-fir.  Once the fir dies in these wet sites, we look to one another and ask “what now?”.   So many times, the land has taught us that the right answer to this question is the planting and nurturing of ash. 

All across the Hyla Woods forests, ash that we planted as fragile, pencil-thin seedlings are now vital trees in whose shade we can now take a nap or enjoy a cold beer.  We are strongly bonded with each of these trees that we’ve nurtured.  Many native trees are critical to our restoration work, but none is more important than ash. 

The wood of the ash is as deserving of praise as the living tree.  It is strong and hard enough to serve many purposes, including as flooring, furniture lumber, tool handles and – of course – baseball bats!  It’s creamy color is highlighted by lines of distinctive grain that loops across the board’s surface much like ridges drawn on a topographic map.

So, having shared these words of praise and love, we much now turn to the hard, recent news.  In late June, Dominic Maze, an invasive species biologist for the City of Portland, made a big discovery while picking up his child from a summer day camp in Forest Grove – the presence of emerald ash borers.  This aggressively destructive insect presumably came from Asia and was first detected in North America in 2002 in Detroit, Michigan.  Having watched the borers spread their destruction east of the Mississippi and as far west as Colorado, we looked on its arrival in Oregon as a question of “when”, but not as a question of“if”. 

As inevitable as this news is, we hoped that it would not come so soon and hit so close to our forests.   I assume that many Oregonians were unmoved when they read news of the discovery in the morning paper – “oh, another bug has shown up…”.  In contrast, those of us whose lives are interwoven with local forests are broken hearted by the news.  It’s all too easy to imagine the unstoppable spread of the pest and the toll that it will take, in our forests and across the region.  The wisdom of Leopold’s “world of wounds” rings all too true as we move from absorbing the news to identifying and researching the many questions and decisions it triggers:  should we stop planting ash? (yes, probably), how soon might it reach our forests and how rapid and severe might the die off be?  With the essential thread of ash pulled from the ecological fabric of the forest, what other tree species might  possibly take its place?  Are there any native options?  If not, should we shift to non-natives?  If so, which….?  What might be the ecological impacts of losing ash…?

Of course, though the sadness of this discovery will always remain, we’ll dry our tears and get on with adapting.  As we do, we’ll be guided and inspired by these words from our wise friend, Tom Hampson:

The Hard Bargain of Love

The string broke in the midst of the concerto,

Isaac played on.

Afterwords, he said, “Your task 

is to make music with what 

remains.”

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Below are responses to some of the questions we have, provided by Christine Buhl, Forest Entomologist for Oregon Dept. of Forestry and Brandy Saffell, Forest Conservation Specialist for Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District:

To inform our choices, we do seek answers to these questions:

  • What’s can be learned about the probable rate of spreading? The spread of infestations is about 10 miles/year largely driven by EAB’s ability to fly at least 10 miles at a stretch unaided by strong winds. With that being said, it’s totally variable how much it will spread in our habitat depending on how much ash and connecting corridors are in an area – and this is excluding human-aided transport in firewood and the like. We can use what other states have found as a guide but Oregon environment, ash distribution, recreation opportunities, etc. are going to be different so we have much to observe and learn. Agreed, and I think the big take home right now is to not move ash wood as firewood or anything else (as that’s one thing we can control).
  • What’s can be learned about how severe the impacts might be?  Will ash survive? In other states counties with infestations have suffered >95% ash mortality and this may not include as comprehensively include natural areas, especially hard to reach ones. We are bracing for this type of mortality.  Agreed, and I believe if we’re talking about survival of the species this will also depend on any natural resistance we see in Oregon ash populations, and also if we can replicate that resistance through breeding. USFS has a breeding study going for Oregon ash, so I think there is some hope there.
  • What other tree species are suited to ash habitat – native and non-native? This is one of our “to-dos” although in our discussions, even cottonwood and alder can’t withstand the alternating totally dry and totally wet habitat that ash can so we are a bit at a loss and I would welcome your thoughts on this as a knowledgeable tree grower!  I think OSU is looking to take on that to-do – maybe some research plots. Native willow species like Scouler would likely be able to move into these areas, though the shade from ash will be hard to replicate. Oak and pine could handle some sites, though as you know they don’t tolerate a ton of seasonal inundation. Red alder doesn’t tolerate the heat quite like ash can. I’ve heard talk of trying white alder. I imagine there will be a suite of species we’ll recommend folks try, and then see what survives. Ash fill such a unique niche – it’s going to be a challenge to adequately replace it.
  • Given our commitment to monitoring, are there steps we can take beyond getting informed and stepping up inspections for signs? At this time monitoring is the most important tool we have. Traps don’t work well. But we can discuss this more tomorrow!  I think if you are willing to monitor and report potential detections to ODA, that’s super helpful. I’d be happy to come out and help with the ID and reporting – I have a form on my phone that goes directly to the survey effort (versus the pubic hotline). Christine does too. I would just need your permission to submit the report. I can also connect you with the research group if you are open to having plots on your property (if they decide to move forward with a management study).


Young, volunteer ash