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Residents fight for Ohio trees amid beetle problem

2/16/2013 8:15 AM
By Associated Press

BETHEL, Ohio (AP) — They knew nothing about tree-killing bugs. They'd never organized a grassroots campaign. Heck, they hardly knew each other.

But more than a year ago, faced with the possibility that their rural landscape could be drastically altered for decades to come, seven Clermont County residents banded together to pursue a common goal: save healthy trees.

The group, which includes a winemaker, a teacher, an artist and a human resources consultant, formed the Bethel ALB Citizens' Cooperative. They began researching, lobbying, fundraising and educating others about ALB, which stands for Asian longhorned beetle, the invasive insect discovered in Clermont County's Tate Township in June 2011.

Their efforts appeared to pay off last month when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a revised environmental assessment that spelled out the agency's preferred means of ridding Clermont of the beetle: removal of infested trees and a combination of removal or chemical treatment of trees at high risk of infestation.

A final decision on a strategy will come sometime after a public comment period, which ended Saturday.

"Nobody's taking a victory lap yet," said Bethel Mayor Alan Ausman. But he credits the citizens group with helping prevent "the wholesale destruction of our trees."

Doug Simmons, director of advocacy for a local nonprofit, is a member of the citizens group and believes if it had not galvanized community support and pushed for chemical treatments, the government "would be well on its way to cutting down 15,000 trees a year, en route to taking down almost 70 percent of the trees around here."

That was essentially the strategy outlined by USDA officials at a November 2011 public meeting: removal of all host trees — the 13 varieties on which the beetle feeds — within one-quarter mile to one-half mile of infested trees. At the time, agriculture officials touted that aggressive strategy as the most effective way to eliminate the pest. It still remains an option, but not the preferred one.

"From day one, people were saying, 'You're going up against the federal government. It's a lost cause,'" said Denae Bowen. "But we weren't going to accept that."

Instead, the core group divvied up tasks. Bill Skvarla became the group's primary spokesman. As owner of Harmony Hill Vineyards, he was able to tap his political and media contacts. His wife, Pat Hornak, put her organizational skills to use as group secretary.

Thelma Bennett agreed to handle the group's finances. Simmons became the legal liaison. Early on, the group raised $5,000 to retain the Cincinnati law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl.

When the group outgrew its Facebook page, Nancy McCarthy, an artist, created a website, www.bethelalb.com. Paul Barbick, a human resources consultant, headed the environmental assessment committee.

Bowen, a teacher who home schools her children, devoted herself to public outreach. It was her idea to tie blue ribbons around host trees to help residents visualize what the community would be like without them.

The group's relationship with the USDA has often been rocky. Still, Phil Baldauf, the agency's Amelia-based ALB eradication project manager, complimented the members for raising awareness of the beetle.

"Even if they're agitated or upset when they have addressed the program, I roll with it," he said. "I step back and try to remove the emotions from it, and see what the major concern is."

Emotions have run high. So far, about 9,100 infested trees have been removed in the county.

"If there's one good thing that's come out of all this," Bowen said, "it has brought us all together. Not just our group, but the whole community. Neighbors are talking to neighbors and helping each other out."

Indeed, Skvarla and Bennett got to know each other while spending hours together in group meetings. One day in October, Bennett was home alone and didn't feel well. Her children were at work, so she called Skvarla, who arrived in a few minutes.

A former emergency room nurse, he determined she was having a massive heart attack. He called 911, then accompanied her to the hospital.

"I owe him a lot," said Bennett, who is recovering nicely.

Members of the Bethel ALB Citizens' Cooperative say they owe a lot to the community. Last year, more than 200 people submitted comments on the USDA's environmental assessment. Now, the group is urging people to comment on the revised report and make their voices heard.

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Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com


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