Ash Paddle Crisis | Canoeroots Magazine | Rapid Media
Ash paddles could become a thing of the past, according to Grey Owl Paddles owner Brian Dorfman. Long live cherry! Ash paddles could become a thing of the past, according to Grey Owl Paddles owner Brian Dorfman. Long live cherry! | Photo: Alex Traynor

Why a nice piece of ash is going to be hard to find

The venerable ash canoe paddle is facing extinction. Due to the devastating effects of the emerald ash borer beetle on North America’s ash trees, paddle manufacturers may soon have to find a new favorite wood from which to manufacture paddles.

The emerald ash borer (EAB) was inadvertently introduced to North America in 1990. The insect harbored inside unfinished packing crates and pallets used to transport products imported from Asia. Just over a half-inch in length and strikingly iridescent, this green beetle has spread throughout the entire 65 species of ash trees on the North American continent. Capable of flight, the EAB extends its range of destruction by an average of 100 miles annually.

The EAB is now found throughout the entire range of the temperate forest, from as far north as Thunder Bay, as far west as Colorado, as far south as Texas and east to the Atlantic coast. According to Canadian and American forest agencies, of the nine billion ash trees in North America at least 500 million have perished from the EAB so far. Current estimates from these agencies suggest in spite of the work being done to save the ash trees, in as little as five or six years most trees will be destroyed and commercial manufacturers will be forced to find alternate sources of wood.

Emerald ash borer 05

Adult emerald ash borer beetles are typically bright metallic green and about 8.5 millimeters (0.33 in) long and 1.6 millimeters (0.063 in) wide. Photo: Creative Commons

Ash is one of the most plentiful hardwoods and a favorite of paddlers. Generally, the ash paddle seems to be somewhere in between maple and cherry in terms of durability and beauty, yet it’s the least expensive of the three. As well as its high strength-to-weight ratio and elasticity, ash has an extremely high impact strength and split resistance. It’s also the material of choice for many canoe builders for seat frames, gunwales, thwarts, carrying yokes and decking.

The economic impact of this destruction in urban areas is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars. The future financial effects of lost timber production could easily exceed $100 billion. In addition to the economic impact, there will be a substantial environmental void left by the loss of the ash trees. As the trees die and open the forest canopy to sunlight, forest floors and wetlands may dry out. Soil conditions and nutrients will change, allowing further propagation of invading species of plants to change the ecology of our forests forever.

To infest a tree, the female EAB lays eggs in the fissures and cracks of the bark of the ash tree. Two weeks later the eggs hatch and tiny larvae chew through the bark and into the sapwood. Larvae build feeding chambers in parts of the tree responsible for providing the leaves with the water and nutrients from its roots needed for photosynthesis production. Eventually, these larvae disrupt the flow of nutrients and water required by the leaves, which leads to the death of the tree.

The EAB requires about 400 to 500 days of temperatures above 10˚C to mature to an adult. In colder climates, the beetle will lie dormant in the cold winter months and complete its metamorphosis in about two years. In warmer climates, it will emerge as an adult in just over a year. With winters trending towards being warmer, the beetle has been able to extend its northern range at a faster rate.

An average infestation of the EAB will usually kill a large mature tree in about three years. A heavy infestation or an infestation of a young tree can kill in as little as one year. When the life cycle of the insect is complete, the adult will eat its way back out through the bark then fly off to its next victim, mate and continue the process. There are no widely known predators that control the EAB population in North America. Woodpeckers provide some help, but overall offer little hope of controlling the population.

EAB Exit Hole

Outside its native range, the emerald ash borer is an invasive species and is highly destructive to ash trees native to northwest Europe and North America. Photo: Creative Commons

In the past, we have seen other destructive insects and diseases plague our domestic hardwoods. A hundred years ago, the great chestnut blight wiped out the American chestnut. Eighty years ago, the butternut fungus or canker all but destroyed the butternut trees, leaving it on the endangered species list in Ontario and almost commercially unviable on the rest of the continent. Fifty years ago, Dutch Elm Disease ended its North America population. However, there is little doubt the EAB is the most destructive and costly insect ever to invade North America.

Today, we still have an adequate supply of North American hardwoods. Aspen, birch, maple, oak, cherry and the like still populate the majority of North America so wood products will continue to be manufactured even though the iconic ash beavertail may go the way of the dodo bird.

Only time will tell whether future invasive species can be contained. In the meantime, hang your ash beavertail on the wall. It may be a rare artifact someday.

Brian Dorfman is the owner of Grey Owl Paddles based in Cambridge, Ontario.

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