Bob Zaino: Emerald ash borer and nature’s resilience

Editor's note: This commentary is by Bob Zaino, who is an ecologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. He lives in Middlesex.

[T]he news that emerald ash borer has arrived in Vermont is devastating. In just a few decades, the majestic ash trees in our forests and swamps could practically disappear.

Sadly, the emerald ash borer is just one of many non-native insects and diseases that have affected Vermont’s natural communities over the past century. In the early 1900s, chestnut blight decimated American chestnuts. Soon after, Dutch elm disease took a similar toll on American elms — celebrated street trees, but also the dominant species in floodplain forests along many Vermont rivers. More recently, hemlock woolly adelgid has been spreading north into the state, and hemlock dieback is starting in Windham County.

In many ways, nature has been remarkably resilient to these losses. Other native trees have literally filled the gaps left by the missing species. Instead of elms, silver maples now arch over our floodplain forests. Where chestnuts once stood, oaks now fill the canopy.

Ecologists know that plants and animals have come and gone from Vermont since the continental glaciation some 13,000 years ago. Natural communities changed and adapted. Today, this resilience itself is being tested. Insects and diseases spread quickly around the globe. And over the next century, the rate of climate change is predicted to be 10 times more rapid than any change in the last 65 million years. Nature will have to adapt faster than ever before.

We can help, by doing our part to slow the spread of emerald ash borer and other non-native species. We can also support those organizations working to restore disease-resistant elms and chestnuts to Vermont’s woods.

Even more important, we must keep our forests and natural communities diverse, intact and connected. If the majority of our native plants and animals can thrive and move around the landscape, then our natural communities will adapt. One hundred years from now, Vermont’s forests may look very different, but they can continue to provide clean air and water, abundant wildlife habitat, and many other benefits into the future.

Vermont’s forests and natural communities have bounced back from other changes. Emerald ash borer should remind us not to take this outcome for granted. Nature’s resilience comes from healthy, functional ecosystems.

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