Visiting professor talks emerald ash borer, tribal basketmaking


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Dr. Darren Ranco discussed ways that Maine is preparing for the emerald ash borer during a lecture at the University of Iowa on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | November 13, 2014

Dr. Darren Ranco visited the University of Iowa campus this week and on Wednesday night gave a lecture on the emerald ash borer and how it is affecting Native American basketmakers in his home state of Maine.

Ranco is a member of Penobscot Indian Nation and holds a PhD in social anthropology from Harvard University. He is currently the Chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine and also serves as an associate professor in anthropology. Much of his research focuses on issues of environmental justice for Native American populations. On Wednesday he presented “Wabanaki Diplomacy to Protect the Ash Tree: Sustainability Science and Environmental Justice in Maine” as part of the UI’s Ida. C. Beam lecture series.

He began by discussing the infestation of the emerald ash borer in the United States which was first reported in Michigan in 2002 and has since spread as far west as Colorado and as far east as New Hampshire. In Iowa, the emerald ash borer has been reported in nine counties (Allamakee, Black Hawk, Bremer, Cedar, Des Moines, Jasper, Jefferson, Union, and Wapello).

“The upper part of the Midwest here has a pretty high density of ash trees compared to other places so the rate of spread, in terms of creating a large number of bugs because there’s a lot of food they can eat, is also part of the spread dynamic,” he said.

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Dr. Darren Ranco discussed the spread of the emerald ash borer since it was first reported in Michigan in 2002. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

The spread of this species, which is native to China, can also largely be attributed to the transportation of fire wood. Public education campaigns have been launched in an effort to fight the dissemination of the bug with much of the focus on prevention as opposed to eradication.

“The biggest thing that makes it really imposible to fight in a conventional forestry way, in terms of eradication, is simply it’s just so hard to detect at low density,” he said. “By the time it’s in a place after three to five years and kills a tree there’s just no response you can have.”

He added that foresters can sometimes catch the bug before it becomes a problem but it is considerably more difficult for landowners and other members of the public to detect it. The bugs themselves do little damage when eating the tree’s leaves however the larvae burrow underneath the tree’s bark which inhibit the tree’s ability to retain necessary nutrients.

Though the emerald ash borer hasn’t made its way to Maine yet, Ranco and his colleagues are working to make sure they are prepared for the bug’s inevitable arrival. For the past five years, Ranco has conducted research using a combination of sustainability science and indigenous research methods to find solutions for tribal basketmakers, landowners, and others who would be affected.

“Maine is a huge forestry state but ash trees are not a central part of our forests. It’s only about four percent of our forests that are ash trees,” he said.

Because of the lack of ash trees specifically in Maine, Ronco said officials with the state’s forestry industry have been slow to respond to the treat of the emerald ash borer. However, Native American tribes in the area often use brown/black ash trees (fraxinus nigra) to construct wood baskets and a loss of ash trees would mean a loss of this cultural tradition as well as a source of income for some. Regardless of the challenges they face, Ranco said he is confident that Mainers will be prepared for the arrival of the emerald ash borer.

“Once the EAB gets there it wont be just a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats lighting their hair on fire, we will actually know what to do.”

For more information about the effort to preserve ash trees in Maine visit:  http://umaine.edu/brownash/

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