Perhaps our Manitoulin community can learn a lesson from the loss of nearly 100 percent of the Central Canadian elm tree population 40 years ago in light of current news about a pest set to savage the Island’s ash tree population.
There is virtually no one under the age of 60 on Manitoulin, or anywhere else in Ontario, who has seen an elm tree in all of its majestic glory.
True, there are some juvenile elm trees one sees in the distance (there are some between Sheguiandah and Manitowaning and others just west of Mindemoya visible from Highway 542 en route to the Veterans’ Memorial Monument) but tree experts claim that, at some time in their development and well before they become giants like the pre-Dutch elm disease trees were in their maturity, they will succumb to the disease and die.
In other words, the Dutch elm disease remains dormant but waits for any trees that may try to make a comeback.
Sadly, the name elm is largely remembered through street names, like Sudbury’s downtown thoroughfare and the country village of Elmvale (near Barrie) that were all named in the days when mature elm trees towered above all other shade species in both town and country. But now they’re gone and are unlikely to return in any numbers until a disease-resistant variety either comes about naturally or through scientific intervention.
Now we’re facing the emerald ash borer, a beetle that thrives by attacking ash trees of all varieties.
The beetle has been making its way north from Southwestern Ontario where it was first identified in this province almost a decade ago and was also identified about four years ago in Sault Ste. Marie so it is not surprising that Manitoulin has become part of the corridor of activity for this invasive species.
There are a great many ash trees of several varieties throughout Manitoulin and, just as with the disappearance of the elms, the landscape would look distinctly different if and when the ash trees largely disappear as well. This is certainly a time when Island landowners should immediately begin to plan for the future and aggressively plant both coniferous and deciduous species to fill the eventual and, sadly, inevitable gap that will be left with the demise of the ash forest.
No doubt the Manitoulin Area Stewardship Council is aware of the issue but it would be a useful exercise for the Stewardship Council, over the next few years, to host some public meetings where landowners could be presented with ideas, and perhaps even sources, for the planting of species appropriate to fill in the gaps that will be left as the ash trees die and are cut or fall down on their own.
In a normal mixed forest, our various species of maple, oaks, poplar, birch will take advantage of newly vacated space. But what about planting, for example, wild apple trees that could both contribute to the forest canopy and provide a food supply for other forest dwellers?
Are there some nut-producing trees that will thrive in our climate and, once again, provide food supply for birds and animals?
Nature abhors a void and, left to her own, will fill in the gaps left by a vanishing species. The most opportunistic and fastest growing trees, like poplar, soft (Manitoba) maple and cedar, will likely be the ones we see first.
But we should consider the sad news of the announcement of the coming of the emerald ash borer to Manitoulin Island, together with what this means to our ash trees, as an opportunity to somewhat engineer the environment with the aggressive planting of various replacement species that will attract and sustain new life in our forested areas rather than always taking what nature hands us.