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Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Allegheny National Forest, facing infestations of invasive insects that threaten to decimate ash, beech and hemlock trees, is proposing a wide-ranging, multi-year, preemptive tree cutting and reforestation project.

The goal of the U.S. Forest Service project, on about a fifth of the 513,000-acre national forest, is to salvage at least part of the timber value of white ash, eastern hemlock and American beech before the trees are killed by the emerald ash borer, the hemlock wooly adelgid and beech bark disease.

Bradford District Ranger Rich Hatfield said that, under the proposed plan, timbering operations will be limited to approximately 4,000 acres containing higher percentages of the targeted tree species. Those trees are in stands scattered throughout the 102,832-acre project area within the forest, which includes parts of Elk, Warren, McKean and Forest counties. That’s still a very large timbering project by ANF standards, he said, though significantly reduced from a preliminary proposal that would have cut 20,000 acres of the trees.
PG graphic: Remediation project locations
(Click image for larger version)

“The whole point is that we know the ash is going to die, be it in one, three or five years,” Mr. Hatfield said. “The emerald ash borer doesn’t have a firm foothold in the forest yet, but it’s all around us and it’s coming our way. This project addresses that inevitability.”

The ash borer, a tiny, shiny-green Asian beetle that feeds exclusively on ash trees, was accidentally shipped to the United States in wood packing or pallets and first appeared in Detroit in 2002. It has been moving swiftly eastward since, causing widespread ash mortality in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. The borer larvae live underneath a tree’s bark, where they cut off nutrients and water flow, causing 99 percent of affected trees to die within six years.

The borer was discovered in Butler County in 2007, and is now found in more than half of the state’s 67 counties. Although ash are not a dominant tree species in most of Pennsylvania, there are about 300 million ash trees in the state and all are at risk.

Mr. Hatfield said the project also will cut hemlock that are infested with the wooly adelgid, and beech that have been attacked by the scale insect, which leads to the fatal fungus that kills bark and eventually the tree.

None of the tree stands targeted for cutting in the project document released Tuesday are in the forest’s Hickory Creek or Allegheny Islands wilderness areas, or in two wilderness study areas, Minister Creek or Chestnut Ridge, Mr. Hatfield said. Wilderness areas are federally designated and are undeveloped, with no roads, buildings or other facilities.

Although the Forest Service appears to be proactive in announcing the project ahead of any known ash borer infestation in the only national forest in the state, Mr. Hatfield said it will take a year to finalize the project, work through public comment periods and advertise the first timber sale. The targeted cutting will take five to seven years to finish, he said.

He said tree stands within the project area will be cut by private timbering companies based on a bidding process. The project should pay for itself, he said, although infestation will “reduce the value of the trees dramatically.”

“We think it’s proactive, but others are saying it’s too little, too late,” Mr. Hatfield said. “Private landowners around the forest have already cut their ash or are cutting it. The process for arranging timbering on public lands takes some time. I hope we’re able to get to our project areas before there is widespread mortality.”

The Forest Service, which plans to prepare a Forest Plan Amendment Decision Document by February, is accepting public comment on the Bradford Emerald Ash Borer Remediation project, and encourages comments by Jan. 18.

Commenting information is at: https://​cara.ecosystem-management.org/​Public//​CommentInput?Project=48178

Don Hopey: [email protected], 412-263-1983 or on Twitter @donhopey
 
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