WASHINGTON, PA (November 18, 2022)—In 2002, a hungry green beetle called the emerald ash borer (or EAB) made its way to North America, setting its sights and stomach on the continent’s ash trees. Insatiable and invasive, the southeast Asian insect seemed set to destroy all American ash, but a group of researchers at Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) recently began work to prevent their extinction.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS) and the ecosystem-centered nonprofit American Forests, Dr. Jason Kilgore, a professor of biology at W&J, has led a team of forest ecology interns for the last five summers in monitoring the decline of EAB-affected ash trees in Allegheny National Forest (ANF), determining how the forest is responding to the loss of ash, and identifying EAB-resistant ash trees with the goal of re-populating these trees in the future.
The summer 2022 team, consisting of four W&J students—sophomore Ty Laughlin, juniors Jonathan Grabowski and John (Jack) Meck, and senior Andrew Edwards—spent June and July collecting three types of data from plots with ash trees on the ANF: Ash (7.8-acre plots where all ash trees are tagged and monitored); cVeg (or Complementary Vegetation plots where understory vegetation is identified and quantified); and Prism (variable-radius plots where the larger tree response to ash mortality is measured).
For some, spending summer days on sore feet and wading through blackberry and stinging nettle to collect meticulous data, may not seem enjoyable, but, for this group, it proved worthwhile.
“I really enjoyed it,” said Grabowski, an environmental science major who named tree identification and understory observation as highlights of the work. “We were outside in the forest, collecting data, and that was just really fun.”
Laughlin, an environmental science major funded by a Magellan-Franklin scholarship for his work on the project, agreed.
“I learned so much about the forest,” the Green Club member said. “I can walk through now and name almost all of the plants. That’s really cool.”
Cooler yet, he and his peers brought scientists closer to an important ecological understanding.
In 2015, the USFS started selectively treating portions of ash trees with systemic insecticide to test the potential for associational protection (akin to “herd immunity” in animals), and assess whether untreated trees in partially treated stands (or clusters of trees defined by certain species) are able to survive the emerald ash borer. Analyzing both treated and non-treated stands, Kilgore and his team have uncovered game-changing results.
“In the stands where none of the trees were treated,” Kilgore said, “all of the trees are dead—100%. In the stands where a portion of the trees are treated, the trees are surviving, including most of the untreated trees.”
With white ash on the brink of extinction, this is major news. Though it comes at a cost (the insecticide that kills the emerald ash borer also kills native insects) it may be the key to maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
“This is a significant result,” Kilgore said. “If we can figure out a way to conserve native ash genetic diversity by leaving some trees untreated, then the native insect species that rely on those ash trees can also survive, and they too will not go extinct.”
That’s good news for humans.
According to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the planet is warming at an aggressive pace. With each passing day, saving it becomes more challenging, but studying and revitalizing forests, which reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and help cool the Earth, can help.
“Forests store an immense amount of carbon,” Kilgore said. “We are just starting to learn how important forests and their soils are for, not only carbon storage, but for the rate of carbon sequestration, and getting that carbon out of the atmosphere. Ash trees are part of that big picture.”
Recognizing their role, Grabowski and Laughlin are getting future-focused.
“I definitely want to do environmental outreach or education after graduation,” Laughlin said, with Grabowski noting that he plans to pursue a master’s degree or doctorate in environmental science. “This internship helped me actually be a part of solving the issues I’m learning about in the classroom and will help me better present those issues to others.”
That piece of student participation—their desire to transform passion into purpose—is what inspires Kilgore to include young scholars in his research.
“I choose to do this work,” Kilgore said, “because if I can pay for students to get six weeks of a research internship, they can use that experience to launch themselves into a bigger and better opportunities.”
Thrilled as he is for the 2022 team, they are not the first to contribute to this ash investigation and, fortunately, they won’t be the last.
For Kilgore and collaborator, Dr. Ben Dolan, an associate professor of biology at the University of Findlay, efforts to study and save North American ash trees began years ago as part of a project they developed within the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN).
At a 2017 conference sponsored by the USFS in Duluth, Minnesota, Kilgore and Dolan presented their work on the widespread progression of EAB-related ash tree mortality and response by shade-tolerant tree species. At that conference, Kilgore met Dr. Kathleen Knight, a research ecologist at the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, and they partnered to write a grant proposal funding three years of student-centered research on the decline of ash trees in Allegheny National Forest.
Successful in their efforts, the proposal was funded by the Forest Service’s Forest Health Protection Program in 2018. Since then, the research, with added support from W&J’s Mazingira Fund, American Forests, and two years of grant extensions, has developed into a five-year project which involves four to five student interns annually.
“My Forest Service colleagues are constantly looking for additional ways to include my lab in the research,” Kilgore said. “For example, I was notified this fall that we received another $30,000 grant to continue this work for two, possibly three, more years. So, that means I’ll get at least eight total years of W&J students doing real-world research.”
“That’s why I work at Washington & Jefferson College,” he continued. “I love working with my students.”
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, proudly located in Washington, Pa., is a historic liberal arts college founded in 1781 that values ethical leadership, professional readiness, and inclusive communities. Our highly customized and intellectually engaging student experience develops professionals of uncommon integrity to lead in an ever-changing world. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu or call 888-W-AND-JAY.