Channel 4, WCCO, on Nov 6, 2006
Reported by Terri Gruca, I-TEAM
(WCCO) For more than 40 years, Minnesota has been battling a swift and sweeping killer. We’ve all heard and seen the effects of Dutch elm, but in the last three years it’s really taken its toll. We’ve lost many of the trees that provided shade at the Minnesota State Fair, trees that lined our neighborhood streets, trees in the state forests. Across this country, Dutch elm disease has killed 77 million elm trees.
As it turns out, we might be paying for those losses in more ways than we imagined, starting with a simple purchase made this time of year.
In a place where majestic pines quietly mingle with towering elms screams a season of change, where the landscape losses pile up. All of the damage delivered, not only by beetles, but by people in the form of firewood sellers.
Jacob Ryg is the forester for the city of Rochester, Minn. He has seen diseased firewood come back into non-infected neighborhoods.
“I think I’ve marked at least 3,000 trees since I’ve been working here, for Dutch elm disease,” said Ryg.
He agreed to be on hand as the I-TEAM had a load of firewood delivered.
The I-TEAM’s Delivery
Ryg pulled back the bark on some of the firewood we had delivered and found a problem. He noted the bark beetle galleries in plain sight.
“This is the kind of stuff I see all the time,” said Ryg, adding the wood gets “hauled back into the city. It’s just that this spreads disease around the city. This is a problem we have all the time.”
About a fourth of the wood the I-TEAM received was elm. Most of the wood had the bark intact and Ryg found enough beetle larvae to be concerned. Our load alone, he said, could kill every tree in the block after a couple years.
“That’s why it’s so devastating, you know?”
How To Inspect Your Firewood
It’s easy to spot the trail of the killer. If you peel back bark and see a web-like pattern that looks like the wood has been carved, that’s a sign of the beetle’s trail — a sign you’ve got Dutch elm diseased wood. Firewood without the bark isn’t usually a problem. But with the bark, one infested log can spread the disease like wildfire. A small log measuring 22 by 4 inches can have as many as 1,800 beetles.
During the winter the beetle becomes inactive, but it can sit there until spring. So if you’ve still got wood sitting around, the beetle wakes up and migrates in search of more food in the form of a healthy elm tree.
In many ways, this is a history lesson never learned. Dutch elm first appeared in this state in 1961, when someone carted in diseased firewood from Illinois here to Litchfield. It’s also the same time Dutch elm showed up in St. Paul and Monticello. So who’s to blame for the resurgence? That’s a tough question to answer.
“The department has launched a rather aggressive campaign to inform people about the threats of moving firewood and we’ve worked closely with firewood dealers,” said Geir Friisoe of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Most cities list regulations that require Dutch elm disease wood be properly disposed, meaning it be chipped or burned. Yet there’s evidence that message from the state is being lost or, worse, ignored.
“There are hundreds of trees being taken down and only a small percentage come into my recycling site,” said Rick Cordie of Hathaway Tree Service in Rochester.
Cordie runs the only wood recycling center near Rochester, a place where all diseased elm in his area is supposed to end up. Here big machines chip diseased Dutch Elm, which is one of the only ways you can get rid of the beetle.
“Where did all the rest of them go? There are 800, 900 tress that are not disposed of properly,” wondered Cordie. “Are they put into the county? Are they put into areas as firewood?”
Companies can save money by eliminating recycling costs, turning diseased wood into firewood. Cities say there are limits to what they can do to stop this.
“Haul it north or south of town and dispose of it and I have no authority over that at all,” said Ryg.
That’s because most city ordinances can only control what’s cut and sold inside the city, making it impossible to police deliveries like the one the I-TEAM received that cross city and county lines.
What You Can Do
You need to inspect any firewood you have delivered to your home. Pull back any bark and look for web-like trails.
Elm wood also looks different than other types of wood. Elm doesn’t have lines like the oak. Healthy elm is perfectly white or bone colored and when its cut elm looks sort of like a shredded toothpick on the inside.