WORCESTER, Mass. - In a quiet neighborhood here lined with small homes, residents are grumbling about plans by authorities to cut down about 500 city trees starting Monday in an ongoing war against an exotic pest.
"There's going to be no privacy, which is a real bummer," said Anthony Maloney, a 33-year-old salesman who lives in a Cape Cod-style house facing a thick hedge of city-park trees that are to be removed. "That's why I bought this house."
More than 34,000 trees already have been chopped down in the area around New England's second-largest city an effort to halt the Asian longhorned beetle, which breeds and feeds on a variety of hardwoods, especially maple trees.
The concentrated infestation has helped make Massachusetts the worst hit among five states—including New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Illinois—where this type of beetle has caused infestations during the past 18 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Asian longhorned beetle is one of several invasive pests that has wreaked havoc on America's trees. Dutch elm disease killed millions of trees after hitting the U.S. in the 1920s, and the emerald ash borer, a more recent arrival, has spread to more than 20 states, the USDA says. The Asian longhorned beetle hasn't moved that far, but it worries tree experts because it is a more indiscriminate eater, and can take out a wide variety of trees.
To eliminate the large, black-and-white bug here, a mix of state, federal and local authorities also have cut down countless other trees in the city's woodsy suburbs. The ultimate goal is to block the bug's path to valuable, Northeast U.S. forests, where it could cause serious environmental and economic damage. Worcester is in the center of Massachusetts, and an easy gateway to northern New England, experts note.
The containment strategy has worked thus far. After a costly, six-year fight, the Worcester-area beetle population is down about 95%, according to the USDA, and it hasn't been seen in states farther north.
Now, forestry experts are trying to finish the job. "There is too much to lose around this area if the beetles are allowed to fester," said Clint McFarland, acting state plant health director for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and point person for the Worcester effort. The USDA also heads the national beetle fight.
A native of China and other Asian locales, the Asian longhorned beetle hitched rides to North America and Europe on wooden packing material made using trees that the beetles had infested, experts believe. The first U.S. siting of the beetle was in Brooklyn in 1996. It joined a long list of invaders such as Asian carp and the kudzu plant that the USDA estimates cost the economy $120 billion each year.
Lots of bugs can damage trees—in an unfortunate moment of irony, another type of beetle was reported recently to have killed a local pine planted a decade ago to honor Beatles legend George Harrison, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the Asian longhorned variety poses a particular threat because it can hit 13 different kinds of trees.
The beetle mainly has been an urban-area pest, but the possibility of it reaching forests has long worried tree-packed Northeastern states. The North East State Foresters Association, which represents foresters in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, estimates those states generate more than $33 billion in economic activity each year from forest products and recreation.
Vermont—where about one-third of the trees are maples—was particularly concerned, said Barbara Schultz, the forest health program manager for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation. The state has a large maple syrup industry, and maples also flash the most vivid colors for autumn leaf peepers. "We know we have a forest that is really vulnerable," she said.
Fortunately, because the beetle doesn't fly well, officials hope to contain it by aggressively felling every infested tree, or tree it might scurry to. As a result, the USDA has spent more than a half-billion dollars inspecting trees, chopping tens of thousands down and replacing them with less beetle-friendly varieties, such as pines and lindens. That strategy has eliminated infestations in Illinois, New Jersey, some parts of New York City and Boston.
"It has really been a brute-force approach," said Mark Hoddle, who directs the Center for Invasive Species Research at the University of California, Riverside.
He and other experts said the approach was worthwhile, though, to ward off larger infestations that could cost many more trees. Still, the beetle doesn't yield easily. New York's invaders have gone suburban, branching out to new areas on Long Island. An active problem in Ohio, in a rural area outside Cincinnati, has cost that state more than 52,000 trees in three years, the USDA estimates.
The Worcester flare-up has been particularly difficult because the beetles were active there for at least a decade before they were spotted, experts believe. When first responders arrived, the beetles "were everywhere, they were landing on us," said Ken Gooch, forest health program director for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which works closely with the USDA. They also were clogging filters in a city pool.
As a result, "we went in and we cleared stately Norway maples from street after street," said Robert Antonelli Jr., assistant commissioner in Worcester's Department of Public Works and Parks. New trees were added, this time a wide variety that the beetles don't like, but the thin replacements could take decades to fully restore lost shade. If Worcester's infestation continues to dwindle, tree removals could stop in the next year or two, said Mr. McFarland, of the USDA. But until then, the cutting continues.
"The beetle has been eradicated in other locations in the country," Mr. Antonelli said. "You've got to take down the infested trees."