Beetles Threaten Basketmaking: Tree Pests

Beetles Threaten Basketmaking: Tree Pests

The native American Wabanaki of Maine make a traditional living making baskets from trees threatened with extinction by the emerald ash borer (EAB). The Wabanaki have ancient ties to the region and are forming a single line of defense against the invasive beetles poised to rob them of their livelihood. These traditional basket-makers have, over the past 20 years, triumphed in the face of other adversity but the arrival of EAB in Maine has caused fear for the fate of their hard-earned industry.

In 1993 the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance was formed in an effort to save a tradition that appeared to be dying out. At the time only 53 basket makers could be identified, the majority of them were elderly women scraping an income together from making and selling the baskets at gift shops for about $30 a piece. Today the Alliance has swelled to over 200 members and the average age has dropped from 63 to 40 which is a positive sign that young Wabanaki from the state’s four tribes — Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac — are rediscovering and becoming involved in an ancient cultural art form.

Theresa Secord, president of the Alliance and resident of Waterville, ME, has worked hard to pass on her skills and traditions to her children. And the price of baskets has increased to about $300 per item, with some being sold for up to $3,000 in special cases, either way families are able to secure a sustainable income with which to support their families now. Unfortunately, as basketmakers were rebuilding their ranks and growing their industry, a threat was hurtling towards them unknown. Can this ancient artform survive what may the most destructive forest pest recorded in North America?

In Maine, ash trees are used for firewood, ax handles, snowshoes, canoe paddles and furniture in addition to baskets. According to the Maine Forest Service about 6.7 million cords of ash wood are harvested each year valued at approximately $140 million. Basket makers use black ash (sometimes referred to as brown ash) for their craft. Just as Maine basket makers were getting organized for the preservation of their craft and livelihood, the emerald ash borer was first identified in the Detroit area, most likely these invasive beetles were introduced through infested shipping pallets and wooden boxes from Asia. The beetles have swiftly destroyed hundreds of millions of ash trees as they ravage their way through at least 22 states.

While they first showed up in the 1990s, the damage wasn’t really noticed until 2002, confounding scientists as to how they traveled so quickly around the country. It turns out we, humans, are the culprits, introducing the pests wherever we transport infected firewood, yard waste or nursery stock. On its own, EAB could only travel about 2 miles per year. And although USDA APHIS predicted that Maine would not see the insects until 2030, the infestation has proved incredibly different to control, scientists have been outpaced at every step. At this point it appears a foregone conclusion that Maine will host EAB very soon, if it is not there already.

The Maine Basketmakers Alliance is part of an anti-beetle coalition collaborating with university researchers, forestry officials and entomologists. The University of Maine at Orono has hosted an annual symposium on the topic for the last several years, with an impressive turnouts. While this is a step in the right direction, action is needed. Basketmakers have begun stocking up on materials, harvesting and storing ash trees, sometimes underwater, always in secluded areas. And University of Maine researchers have begun mapping existing ash and collecting and preserving ash seeds that could be replanted after a potential wave of devastation.

This coalition aims to make Maine the first state to successfully manage and control the emerald ash borer, and they may just be onto something. Maine has a geographical edge with shoreline composing a long border, also the state’s forest are primarily composed of evergreens; ash trees comprise only 6% of the population, officials have a head start on combatting the pest and the public is largely invested in the situation due to  the trees’ economic value.

If you have concerns about EAB on your property or would like advice on protecting your landscape, contact your arborist and visit: