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No Small Threat

Made from native brown ash trees, Maine Indian baskets are functional art forms that have been passed down through generations of the region’s tribal communities. But the future of the art is being threatened by an invasive beetle species — the emerald ash borer — that already has devastated the ash populations in states such as Michigan and Ohio, and is being found in trees in New York and the Canadian Province of Quebec.

For centuries, the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes have had a deep cultural and spiritual connection to ash or wikepi, the basket trees, using them to weave intricate and functional baskets from patterns and stories passed down from their ancestors.

In an effort to research this potentially devastating new invasive species and minimize its impact, basket makers, tribal members, state and federal agencies, and University of Maine researchers have joined forces to develop research questions and potential solutions.

“If this resource goes away, it’s devastating on a couple of levels,” says Darren Ranco, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at UMaine.

Not only is the craft of creating ash baskets a part of tribal culture, it’s also of economic importance to the weavers. One of the three annual basket sales in the state is held at UMaine’s Hudson Museum every December (this year, Dec. 5). As in past years, the event is an opportunity for prospective buyers to interact with the artists.

The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance served as one of the principal investigators, along with Ranco; Rob Lilieholm, the E.L Giddings Associate Professor of Forest Policy; and John Daigle, associate professor of forest recreation managament, on a grant that supported work on this project through the end of October.

The team received a $43,000 summer planning grant from Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative to bring together interested parties and begin the process of researching what has happened in other areas.  It also has just been awarded an additional $70,000 from SSI, as part of an award from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) Program to continue this work through June.

“We’re still in the process of learning what has happened in other places, both right and wrong,” says Ranco. “We’re learning from that.”

The emerald ash borer is an exotic beetle that was discovered in southeastern Michigan near Detroit in summer 2002, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

While the adult beetles eat ash foliage and cause little damage, the larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients.

Maine is ahead of other states in trying to prevent and manage the invasion before it occurs, but its eventual presence in the state is likely inevitable, according to UMaine Associate Professor of Forest Resources William Livingston.

Methods being used to prevent the presence of other invasive species threatening Maine forest populations, such as the Asian longhorned beetle, are expected to prolong the time it takes for the emerald ash borer to breach state borders, which will allow the task force more time to prepare.

The most important of those management practices is preventing people from transporting wood into the state from other areas.

“The longer it takes to get here, the better chance of natural predators or parasites — either native or introduced — to kill the population,” says Livingston. “That’s why it’s important to keep it out as long as possible. Time matters.”

Maine has experienced other infestations that have harmed its tree population, including Dutch elm disease. The circumstances in that infestation were similar to the threat against the ash population, as Maine also has a very small natural elm population.

“But that involved fungal infections, so it was more difficult to control naturally,” says Livingston, noting that the elm beetle did not kill the tree, but the fungus that it inoculated into twigs choked the trees to death. “Dutch elm disease killed a lot of the elm population, but there’s still elm in the Maine forest. The same is likely to happen with the ash and emerald ash borer.”

One concern Livingston has is that when Dutch elm disease struck many urban areas that used the trees for shade, the elms were replaced with ash trees.

“So the same thing could happen again,” says Livingston. “Almost all of the planted ash trees in urban areas are likely to be killed by the borer after it gets here.  This is what happened in the Detroit area.”

In the early ’90s, Livingston assisted the Maine Forest Service with an ash tree study. A period of drought was affecting the ash trees, but just as people have to cut back on what they can afford during a recession, the trees simply lost the branches and leaves they couldn’t support without more water. When the drought ended, the population regenerated and there was very little mortality.

“The drought ended, water was available, and the trees rebuilt their crowns,” says Livingston.

Only about half of 1 percent of trees in Maine is ash trees, according to a 2003 report. However, at 400 million ash trees, it is still a significant resource.

“It’s widely distributed in the state,” says Livingston. “The relative impact on Maine forests will be small commercially as for wood volume, but where ash does have value, that means it’s really threatened.”

Which is where concern from Maine’s tribes comes in to play.

“It could be another piece of our culture lost,” says Ranco. “But tribal peoples are resilient, too. I think that it’s a potentially devastating threat for our culture, but we always find a way to survive.”

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