There’s a well-known story we tell to our children. As with all such children’s tales, the protagonist faces a moral dilemma, and its resolution teaches a valuable lesson. The story goes like this:

One night, a big storm rips through a small town. The storm causes extensive damage to the community’s homes, its businesses and farmsteads. The devastation stretches far and wide. Nobody goes unscathed.

In the morning, a young mother nervously steps outside of her home to appraise the damages. What confronts her causes her to gasp. Trees are down everywhere and debris is scattered across yards like confetti. Leaves, papers and trash are plastered against the houses. Siding is ripped off one side of her home, shingles are missing and the power will be out for days. She barely recognizes her own neighborhood.

The next day, attempting to lift the spirits of her young family, the mother decides that she and her 6-year-old daughter will take some hot soup to an elderly neighbor who lives three doors down. The mother owns a wood stove to cook on, a fact she’s grateful for. As she and her daughter pick their way down the street, the little girl spies a downed bird’s nest lying on the ground. Miraculously, the nest still contains a live baby bird. She picks up the nest and gently places it in the crook of one of the mangled trees.

The mother, ashen at the destruction she sees and unable to contain her despair, even from her daughter, bitterly asks, “Why do you bother?”

The daughter hesitates and then quietly says, “It’s OK, Mama, it mattered to that bird.”

I can relate with the young mother in the story.

Living in southern Michigan, we’re at the very epicenter of the emerald ash borer crisis. In the space of 14 short years, I’ve watched tens of millions of ash trees die across the state. There’s hardly a street I drive on that I don’t see one dead ash. Normally, I see several. In the woodlots, in the tree lines between the fields and in wooded lowland areas, dead ash trees are everywhere you look.

Invasive species may well be the biggest tree care/habitat preservation issue we face as citizens and certainly as tree professionals.

Whether they’re an insect, disease or plant, stopping invasive species feels overwhelming.

It feels overwhelming because it is overwhelming. Whether it’s the emerald ash borer, sudden oak death, mountain pine beetle, hemlock wooly adelgid, the kudzu vine and, unfortunately, countless other exotic plants and pests, the problem of invasive species has grown so enormous and the damages are so severe, that, frankly, my puny effort to treat a single ash tree seems pointless.

Even after the researchers proved to me that there are products that provide effective control for the emerald ash borer — Emamectin Benzoate, Imidacloprid and more — the initial damages were so terrible that just like that mother, I asked, “What’s the point?”

There were some Michigan arborists, however, who took a different approach. Despite the ravages they saw, they decided to help “that tree,” and that one, and that one over there, too. They understood they couldn’t save the forest, but they could place one nest back in a tree. For on a per tree basis, an arborist has the skills, has the products and the technology to make a difference … for “that tree.”

One such arborist stands out.

In 2003, when the EAB crisis first arrived at Grand Valley State University (Allendale, Michigan), arborist Steve Snell decided to meet the crisis head-on. He had good cause. Half of the shade trees on campus were ash. To lose those trees would set back the campus for years, maybe decades. So he set out to show his superiors at the university that treatment was possible.

Fourteen years later, the university continues to treat its ash trees, removing only a few each year as it strategically diversifies its tree population. Today, the campus stands as a green oasis and has won numerous national landscape beautification awards.

This story, however, doesn’t stop at the university.

But first, a little backstory is needed to appreciate what follows.

The entomologists at Michigan State University believe the emerald ash borer first arrived in the U.S. via wooden shipping crates heading to Detroit from China, arriving as early as 1990. The insect, however, was not identified as the emerald ash borer — a new exotic threat — until 2001. That allowed several years for EAB to become well-established throughout southeast Michigan. By the time they realized how serious the threat was, no effective strategy could be implemented. An attempt was made to create a firebreak. That attempt failed.

Their misfortune, however, allowed the outlying communities, as well as neighboring states, time to prepare for the EAB invasion. They had the luxury, so-to-speak, of witnessing what occurred in southeast Michigan and make a more informed decision on how best to handle the approaching crisis.

One such outlying community was the city of Grand Rapids. Located in western Michigan and 150 miles from the initial infestation, Grand Rapids thought it had about three years to prepare. Yet, similar to the young mother, most city officials had already given up hope of stopping the pest. They’d seen the failed attempt and had already decided to replace approximately 8,000 city ash trees.

The city’s mayor, the Honorable George Heartwell, however, felt differently.

Emerald Ash Borer in Southern Michigan Invasive species


The mayor contacted me to see if there was anything to be done to save the ash. At that time, I was chairing the Michigan Urban Forestry Advisory Committee.

I told him, “Yes, there is. Some trees can be treated. Maybe it’s not feasible to treat them all, but you could save some.”

What helped me convince the mayor, and eventually the other city officials, was Snell’s treatment of the nearby Grand Valley university trees. His success provided me an example to point to. The mayor allowed me to speak to an environmental committee deciding the issue. As a result of that meeting, the city decided to retain the more important ash trees in town — 1,500 of them. The city’s decision to treat some ash trees also helped to encourage individual homeowners across the region to save some of their trees, too.

Moreover, the EAB crisis caused the leadership of Grand Rapids to take a fresh look at its urban forestry program. The potential loss of so many trees opened eyes as to how important trees are to a community. The city would eventually implement a citywide tree inventory, write a new management plan and hire more staff and tree crews.

The city of Grand Rapids was recently recognized by American Forests as having one of the most progressive tree management programs in the nation. One of the city’s volunteers who helped spearhead saving the ash trees, Dotti Clune, received the 2012 Volunteer of the Year Award from the Alliance for Community Trees (ACT). I know Dotti personally. If anyone exemplifies the 6-year-old-daughter in the children’s story I shared above, it’s Dotti.

We in the tree service industry are weathering a great storm — it’s a storm called invasive species. Whether you live in California facing sudden oak death, whether you’re in Colorado dealing with mountain pine beetles, or live in North Carolina watching the loss of your iconic hemlock trees to wooly adelgids, you’re witnessing the death of millions of valuable trees.

As arborists, we’re in a unique position. We may not be able to save the forest but we can make a difference for “that tree” and for that one, and for that one, too. Don’t underestimate the value of saving one tree. There’s often a surprising domino effect … but only if you choose to pick up that nest.