The invasive emerald ash borer could pose the ultimate constitutional question for New York’s Adirondack Park, as efforts to eradicate it within the Blue Line might violate the Forever Wild clause restricting tree-cutting on state lands in the park.
The insect was first discovered in Michigan in 2002 and has since chewed its way through ash tree stands in the northern Midwest and Northeast.
It has devastated ash forests throughout western New York and infested forests in at least five counties in the Hudson Valley since 2009, when it was first discovered in the state. The ash borer was discovered in New Hampshire for the first time earlier this month. Quebec is also dealing with outbreaks, meaning the park is encircled by the winged insect.
Counties as far north as Albany County are under a state Department of Environmental Conservation quarantine, as the tree-killing insect continues to march up the Northway/Hudson River corridor.
The Adirondacks are different from most forests, at least in a legal sense.
Ash borer infestations in New Jersey and western New York have been isolated by large-scale clear-cutting, limiting the bug’s ability to hop from tree to tree. The ash borer’s larvae bore into the trunks of hardwoods, causing a tree’s death in just a few years.
Timber harvesting is banned by Article XIV of the state constitution, which mandates New York’s forest preserve is to remain “forever wild” and “the timber thereon (shall never) be sold, removed or destroyed.”
“We’re not sure,” said John Sheehan, of the Adirondack Council environmental group, on the question of whether saw-wielding state staff could clear sections of the Forest Preserve to prevent an infestation. “That’s the troubling question of the moment.”
Timber harvesting in the Forest Preserve has been a controversial issue for decades. Widespread blowdowns and ice storms in the 1990s left millions of board-feet of timber rotting on the forest floor in the Adirondacks. Local loggers and state lawmakers unsuccessfully called for access to the timber, the decaying remains of which can still be seen throughout the Forest Preserve.
State regulators and environmentalists pushed back, arguing the rotting trees return nutrients to the soil.
“I think it would have to be treated and removed,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, of trees in the Forest Preserve infected by ash borers.
The state’s guidelines for the Forest Preserve, the State Land Master Plan, makes no mention of invasive species management.
“The idea is to protect the Forest Preserve,” Little said. “You have to do what you need to do to protect it.”
Ash trees represent about 7 percent of all trees in New York, or 900 million trees, and up to 12 percent of Adirondack timber, state scientists estimate.
Trees cleared in 1950
If an infestation in the park by the ash borer — or by another high-profile invasive species, the Asian longhorned beetle, which devours most hardwood species — led the state to clear timber in the Forest Preserve, it wouldn’t be the first time.
State foresters in
1950 cleared substantial numbers of downed or dying trees.
The conservationist movement at the time had a different perspective than the modern environmental movement, which is focused on preserving state lands as they now are, said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks!, an environmental group.
The mid-20th century conservationists never challenged the state’s actions, which were viewed as good for game species and surviving flora.
“I don’t know that the environmental community can come to grips with what this means,” Bauer said of the quandary posed by the tree-killing pests. “The treatment will run squarely against Article XIV.”
The view of state officials, reinforced by opinions from the state Attorney General’s Office, is that limited tree-cutting would be constitutional.
“The number of trees that would have to be cut is the factor,” said DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino. “The fewer the number, the greater the likelihood that the cutting would be constitutional. The greater the number, the lesser the likelihood.”
Catching the invasive insects early might be the key to the legality of any eradication efforts, while a widespread outbreak could pit the health of the Forest Preserve’s hardwoods against the state constitution.
“Asian longhorned beetle, which attacks maples and a dozen other native hardwood species, is still considered an eradicable pest, so our proposed response may be more aggressive,” Severino said.
Not clearing infested trees because of a potential constitutional challenge would make the Adirondack Forest Preserve a 3 million-acre incubation chamber for the winged insect, which could then infect private stands, said Eric Carlson, president of Empire State Forest Products Association.
DEC cleared a handful of infected trees in the much smaller Catskill Forest Preserve last year after the ash borer was found at a state campground.
The state has banned the transportation of firewood more than 50 miles to stall the march of the invasive pests.
But as the ash borer slowly moves north, the complicated constitutional question of how to deal with the pests within the Blue Line remains one for debate and concern.
“It’s an interesting question that the environmental community clearly has to wrestle with,” Bauer said.