SALT LAKE CITY — Dubbed the "green menace" and perched on the doorstep of Utah, the emerald ash borer is an insect that threatens to wipe out a key element of desirable urban landscapes: stately, ornamental trees.
The beetle goes after ash trees — which for decades have been a popular choice to provide shade and aesthetics to neighborhood parks, established neighborhoods and downtown main streets.
"Big ornamental trees are part of our culture," said Utah Department of Agriculture and Food spokesman Larry Lewis. "They are part of being able to enjoy the outdoors with our families."
The department hosted a daylong workshop Thursday on the pest, drawing foresters and others from throughout the country to advise on best strategies to minimize the impacts.
Unfortunately, the invasive intruder is an effective predator of its victims, responsible for the death or decline of millions of ash trees — hitting states in the Northeast particularly hard because of their large swaths of deciduous trees.
"At least we have the luxury of learning from states who have already gone through this," said Clint Burfitt, entomologist with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. "There are states that have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at this and still end up losing everything."
First detected in 2002 in Michigan, the "menace" slipped into the country through wood packing material in cargo shipments from China.
It has since spread steadily east, most recently detected in Colorado in last fall. Since then, foresters and agriculture officials there have been taking aggressive action to stop its spread, including advising nurseries and consumers against planting any more ash trees.
Burfitt said the bug was on his radar in 2004, and, by 2013, the problem took on new urgency after the bug jumped across Kansas and landed in Colorado.
While the beetle can fly for several miles, the beetle is most signficantly spread with the help of people — transported in infected wood and in other ways.
Lewis said agencies are going to collaborate to educate the public about how to detect the beetle and ways to refrain from refrain from "packing a pest."
"If you are moving here from Colorado, don't bring your firewood," Lewis said. "We get shipments from the port of Seattle, the port of Oakland and the port of Long Beach. Utah is at the crossroads of the West, but, in this case, it works against us."
State officials don't know if the bug is already here, so they plan do a fairly comprehensive inventory of ash trees this spring.
"It is something that I half expect to find soon, a discovery that is just a phone call away," Burfitt said.
The trouble with the green menace, he added, is that infestation is costly from a community standpoint.
"We have a lot of invasive species, a lot of insects, but most do not cause damage economically. It will be something that once it gets here, you have areas in Salt Lake City, in rural communities, in Ogden where there are 75 to 100 ash plantings lining their streets."
While ash trees represent just a portion of the state inventory of trees, Burfitt added that it becomes a matter of perspective as well.
"Twenty percent of those trees might be the 80 percent that is on your street. "
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