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A recovery takes root

As Boston tries to curb Asian longhorned beetle outbreak, Worcester works to rebound from a devastating infestation

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / July 11, 2010

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WORCESTER — The scars of the Asian longhorned beetle’s wrath in Worcester are still visible along the streets of the city’s Burncoat neighborhood, where massive maple trees once towered over homes and schools.

“You couldn’t see the sky — the street was completely shaded,’’ said neighborhood resident Mary Knittle. “The whole thing was a complete canopy.’’

Today, spray-painted signs on sidewalks mark where the tall maple trees once stood. Saplings of species not susceptible to the beetle, which were recently planted as their replacements, have yet to mature.

The neighborhood, once characterized by leafy side streets, now features an open view of telephone poles and power lines. Barely any shade touches the streets.

“It happened so quickly,’’ said Knittle, a 46-year-old mother of four, who recalls the towering trees that gave the neighborhood streets and parks a sense of serenity. “When the first trees were cut, people seemed stunned. They couldn’t believe it.’’

Worcester’s experience is instructive as Boston for the first time confronts an Asian longhorned beetle infestation. Groundskeepers at Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain recently found six infested trees; they were cut down last Tuesday, and inspectors are now examining the neighborhood tree-by-tree.

But the situation in Worcester was far more dire than it appears to be in Boston thus far. In Worcester, the infestation had already spread extensively when it was first discovered. In Boston, by contrast, there is no evidence to date that the beetles have spread beyond the six trees in the Faulkner’s front yard.

Nearly two years after the pesky beetle was found in a backyard tree in Burncoat, Worcester is still trying to recover. Even while saplings are replacing trees that were cut down and potential host trees are treated with insecticides, more beetles have been found, and the scope of the possible infestation area has reached 74 square miles, or 850,000 trees.

To date, more than 27,000 trees have been cut down, either because they were infested or were considered host trees that posed a likelihood of getting infested. And state and federal environmental officials continue to inspect and treat trees, with a goal of completing the inspection of the target area — made up of Worcester, West Boylston, and parts of Boylston, Holden and Shrewsbury — by June 2011.

“With 850,000-plus host trees, every one of them will be looked at in the area,’’ said Rhonda Santos, of the US Department of Agriculture. “The eradication efforts are ongoing, and will continue to be ongoing, as we come across infested trees.’’

Burncoat residents believe — without proof — that the tree eradication has led to more power outages, has made hot days feel hotter because of the lack of shade, and has made the neighborhood noisier. Even houses have to be painted more often, because of the wear from all the direct sun.

“A lot of things have to be watered that were never before,’’ Knittle said. “It’s the little things you have to pay attention to.’’

The Worcester area was the first in New England in which the beetles had been found; Boston is now the second.

“We’re continuing to play catch-up in terms of how far the beetle got,’’ said Colin Novick, executive director of the Greater Worcester Land Trust. “It’s not that they’re moving fast, it’s a matter of where they were. They had a head start. But I believe we have a grasp on things.’’

The source of the infestation in Worcester has never been identified, but local speculation is that the beetles arrived at a Worcester manufacturing plant on wooden pallets from China.

Their arrival in Boston raises a host of new questions, Novick said. Officials will try to determine if the beetle spread from Worcester or is a new, unrelated infestation.

The beetle has already prompted tree removal in Chicago, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. But its arrival in New England creates potential new problems because of the beetle’s ability to spread quickly among the region’s densely wooded areas.

Worcester was a prime target for the beetle’s infestation because in the years after a tornado ravaged the city a half century ago, the new tree of choice was the Norway maple — now the prime breeding ground for the beetle. Worcester neighborhoods such as Burncoat and Greendale were hard-hit because they were made up mostly of maple trees.

Worcester City Manager Michael V. O’Brien said there was tension between regulators who say they are obligated to remove trees quickly to stop the spread of the beetle and residents who want to preserve as many as they can.

“It’s been a tough two years, no question, and the entire process has been heartbreaking,’’ O’Brien said. “There’s a community at stake, and there’s a quality of life at stake.’’

Community groups are now working to not only replace trees, but also diversify them. The Worcester Tree Initiative, formed by local officials and community leaders, has a goal of replanting 30,000 trees, of different species, within five years.

Paula Cooney, a Mayflower Circle resident, now has a Japanese lilac tree in her backyard, along with a royal burgundy cherry tree, replacing the 20-year-old maple that was outside her home.

“There’s something to look at now,’’ she remarked. Knittle, her neighbor, added, “That tree has grown quite a bit — I think they all have.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.

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