Emerald ash borers may leave people with ballpark blues

By Barrett J. Brunsman
Cincinnati (July 10, 2007)- The emerald ash borer is decimating the trees of Ohio, but those might be just an appetizer. On deck is neighboring Pennsylvania, where the insatiable insect could take a bite out of the national pastime. Eighty percent of the 850,000 baseball bats made for youth, adult, and major leagues every year under the brand name Louisville Slugger are ash. About 70% of that ash is grown and milled in Pennsylvania.

And that’s just one threat the voracious beetle poses. Just a half-inch long, the beetle threatens millions of valuable trees that line neighborhood streets and enhance people’s yards. Ash trees become brittle when they die, so they must be removed before they fall on houses, cars or people.
The borers already have killed 20 million ash trees in Michigan, where they were first spotted in 2002, Ohio and Indiana, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. North America lacks the parasites that keep them in check in their native Asia.
In Ohio, about 254 million saplings and mature ash trees might be felled because of the bug, said Dan Balser, forest health specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Counting seedlings, Ohio has about 5 billion ash trees – or one out of every 10 trees in the state.
A property owner might have to pay more than $1,000 to remove a single ash tree near a house, which could add up to $1 billion for residents in Ohio alone, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
David Gamstetter, supervisor of urban forestry for the Cincinnati Park Board, said the 5,000 ash trees that line the city’s streets might end up as lumber. “We don’t really have a market for it,” Gamstetter said. “Ash isn’t used a lot – other than in baseball bats. What we’re trying to do is figure out how we can use it in local projects so we create a market that makes it economical for us to saw it into boards.”
Of the 40,000 trees turned into Louisville Sluggers each year, 80% are ash, said Brian Boltz, general manager of Larimer & Norton, the timber division of Hillerich & Bradsby. The company harvests ash on land it owns, and it buys trees from independent loggers.
Forty workers at three Pennsylvania mills operated by Larimer & Norton process timber into 37-inch-long, 3-inch-round billets, which end up as bats with the Louisville Slugger imprint. About 30% of the ash Larimer & Norton mills in Pennsylvania is grown in neighboring New York, Boltz said. The best ash for baseball bats comes from the two states.
Because of a federal quarantine imposed on Ohio hardwood after the emerald ash borer migrated to Ohio, Larimer & Norton is “absolutely not” interested in buying ash from counties infested with the pest, Boltz said. Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Maryland also are under federal quarantine because of the emerald ash borer.
Criminal penalties for violating the federal quarantine include up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000, said Andrea McNally, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While it has about 20 competitors, Louisville Slugger provides at least 55% of all bats used by Major League Baseball players, said Marty Archer, president of the Louisville Slugger. Half of those bats are made of ash, and the rest are maple.
San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds is pursuing the home-run record with a maple bat, but other stars favor ash bats – including New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and shortstop Derek Jeter – said Chuck Schupp, director of sales for professional baseball at Hillerich & Bradsby. Both are hard woods, but ash is lighter, more flexible and more affordable, Archer said.
“If this thing becomes a serious problem, it’s going to take a lot of getting used to by professional baseball players – because a lot of them like ash,” Archer said.
To slow the bug, Pennsylvania has quarantined four counties near Ohio. Pennsylvania isn’t yet under a federal quarantine. Archer, Louisville Slugger president, said the company would look to other states – or even abroad – for a supply of ash if the emerald ash borer can’t be halted.
“When you start getting quarantines, even if it doesn’t devastate the forest, it’s going to be hard for us to find ash,” Boltz said. “Who knows where it’s going to be 10 years from now? Maybe ash is not going to be a viable product for baseball bats anymore.”
Related Resources:
Emerald Ash Borer
Detroit Free Press