The Sherburne Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is partnering with new agencies and using the power of volunteers to ensure forest health in Minnesota.
Sherburne SWCD held two volunteer training sessions this year to recruit community members to assist in pruning trees and observing woodpeckers for early emerald ash borer (EAB) detection, the fifth year for each of the programs.
The volunteer pruning program is done in partnership with the University of Minnesota Tree Care Advocate Program. This year, nearly a dozen volunteers assisted with pruning more than 300 trees, focusing on newly planted trees (on the landscape less than 20 years) and eliminating defective branch attachments to prevent failure and potential mortality.
Although the SWCD has partnered with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Elk River City Parks for four years, this is the first year that the SWCD has expanded the partnership to a regional level. New partners for 2019 include Stearns and Wright counties and city parks in St. Cloud and Buffalo to conduct the woodpecker activity survey program work for early detection of EAB, an emerging invasive forest pest in Minnesota. More than 30 volunteers attended the training.
“Administering these volunteer opportunities has grown from a vision to a privilege for me,” Sherburne SWCD Forest Resource Specialist Gina Hugo said. “I can’t say enough about how grateful I am to the volunteers being willing to give of their time and increase their skill set for the greater good.”
“The folks that have stepped forward are fabulous to work with, enthusiastic about learning and energized to be a part of stewarding our natural resources,” she said. “This service to our communities has strengthened the district’s partnership with community decision-makers and staff. It’s amazing.”
EAB was first confirmed in Minnesota in 2009. The forest pest destroys ash tree populations quickly. Most recently, EAB has affected Clearwater and Sauk Center. Counties east of Sherburne County have been quarantined, and confirmed infestations are as close as two miles to the Sherburne County border.
The partners and Sherburne SWCD helped identify 38 priority areas including city and county parks, boulevards and public landscapes. Volunteers gathered in March for training on tree identification, EAB life cycle and identification, and were provided an outdoor field training before observing woodpecker activity from park trails and mowed and maintained open park areas.
“Trained volunteers who live and work in the district are essential to the early detection of EAB in the community and throughout Minnesota,” Minnesota Department of Agriculture Plant Health Specialist Jennifer Burington said.
“The more eyes out looking for signs of EAB, the earlier it will be found in new areas,” she said. “Early detection allows the community to implement more management tactics.”
Minnesota has more ash trees than any other state in the country, with some communities having 60 percent of their tree population in ash trees, so early detection is critical to maintain the environmental services and aesthetics the trees provide.
“Early detection isn’t easy with the amount of staff we have,” Hugo said. “We have a lot of birders here, so by reaching out and tapping into those resources, we can exponentially monitor through their eyes.”
No instance of EAB has yet been found through the volunteers’ work, but that suits Hugo fine.
“Every suspect tree a volunteer finds, we go out and revisit and check it for what the volunteer saw for woodpecker activity,” she said. “They are doing such a good job, there’s always something we can key in on, and sometimes we have called the Department of Agriculture to come out.”
“What are the odds they will be in these areas we’re checking? I don’t know,” she said. “But we’re educating people and making them aware.”
Hugo said that awareness could lead to policy change – another area that can go far in early detection. Currently, there are two bills up for discussion in the state legislature that would allocate $13 million annually in the biennial budget to match grants for programs like tree inventories, preparedness planning, infested tree removal and replacement and treatment practices.
“These trainings are really effective,” Hugo said. “These engaged community members often volunteer in other organizations and efforts, so they’re talking to other people, and they get other people involved. It’s like ripples in the water. Word is not just spreading out in one direction, it’s going further in all directions.”