The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN for short) is a non-profit that identifies flora and fauna threatened with extinction. They’re committed to conservation and to provide the world “with the most objective, scientifically-based information on the current status of globally threatened biodiversity.”
The Emerald Ash Borer beetle arrived in Michigan from Asia in the late 1990s via infested shipping pallets. Without predators they’ve spread rapidly. In their larval stage they bore a channel under the bark that girdles and kills the tree. Tens of millions of Ash trees in North America have died as a result. An entire Ash forest can be wiped out within six years of infection. The IUCN just classified five of the six most prominent Ash tree species in North America as “Critically Endangered.” The sixth Ash specie is assessed as “Endangered.” The only classification beyond “Critically Endangered” is “Extinct”, which means that the IUCN has just reported that Ash trees in North America are on the verge of extinction.
It’s hard to imagine the North American deciduous forests without Ash trees. They are a key component to the forest ecology providing habitat and food for squirrels, birds and insects. They are also a valuable timber used in the production of furniture and flooring. Ash has beautiful white and creamy colors with a grain pattern as distinctive as Oak. Its natural elasticity and a high resistance to impact made it a favorite wood for tool handles, baseball bats, and hockey sticks. It’s quite possible that we’ve held Ash in our hands more than any other hardwood. Planet Hardwood recognized early signs of stress when many flooring mills removed Ash from their menu. Mainstream flooring production with the color consistency necessary to qualify as a “select” grade of Ash has been unavailable for over two years. There’s a frantic effort to stem the destruction, but the Ash Borers’ range naturally increases with higher average temperatures, threatening six billion trees. Human activity via the movement of lumber and firewood unintentionally contributes to the spread. Every Vermont state park has signs that remind people of the danger.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. Only a tiny fraction of Elm trees proved resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. It’s caused by an invasive spore that attaches itself to bark beetles. Postcards from the fifties still showed Elm trees, with their fluted profile, providing a beautiful tunnel of green for city streets in Burlington Vermont. By the time I got here in the 1970’s most were gone or dying. The most famous instance of an invasive species impacting our hardwood forest is the Chestnut blight. It’s estimated that the American Chestnut tree was between 1/4 and a 1/2 of the entire volume of hardwood that grew within its range. The contribution Chestnut made to the forest ecology and to human survival is difficult to appreciate. Its wood was used in all phases of construction; its bark was a source of tannins for making leather; and its nuts provided nourishment for wildlife, livestock, and people. Chestnut was soft enough to work with hand tools, and its natural resistance to environmental degradation made it a popular wood for hand-hewn post-and-beam construction. In the beginning of the twentieth century a fungus was imported from Asia and within fifty years ten billion Chestnut trees succumbed. When it comes to the destruction of an entire well-established species by a disease, it’s hard to find an example in modern history that compares to the Chestnut blight.
American Chestnut flooring is only available now using wood rescued from old buildings, and it’s very expensive. Ash might follow a similar path. As for your old baseball bats and hockey sticks?… Hold on to those. Anything made from Ash could be the last of its kind.