Watch Your Ash! These Trees Can Be Dangerous

Like many NDA members and deer habitat managers, I have been targeting ash trees for removal by cutting, girdling, and hack-and-squirt to free up space around mast-bearing oaks and to increase sunlight reaching the ground for forage and cover production. I learned recently of a particular danger inherent in cutting down ashes, and your personal safety may depend on your own awareness.

Members of the ash genus, such as the white, green, and black, have a native range over much of the central and eastern parts of the United States. Unfortunately, the invasive emerald ash borer (EAB) is now found in most of the states within that range and continues to relentlessly spread, leaving a swath of dead and dying trees in its wake. Recently, I invited Joe Boswell, a senior area forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry, to visit my Botetourt County, Virginia land to give me some ideas for habitat improvement projects. When we passed a white ash I had girdled just a year or so before that, Joe noted the top of the tree had already fallen. He said the same thing happens when emerald ash borers attack these trees. If someone is sawing down a diseased ash that has been hit by EAB, the top could potentially break off and fall before the rest of the tree, or in a different direction. It could end up falling on the chainsaw operator.

The lightened patches of bark on this ash tree indicate it has been attacked by emerald ash borers and is dying. The trees tend to die from the top down, which makes them dangerous to cut.

“I don’t know whether the tops of ashes die first, or they fall first because the wood is so brittle,” said Joe. “Whichever is the case, land managers should be very careful and try to anticipate where the tops might separate when they start to cut down these trees.”

Given the danger inherent in cutting down any trees, habitat managers should always wear chainsaw safety chaps, a helmet, face shield, eye protection and gloves when implementing chainsaw work. However, when cutting down an ash, spend extra time studying the tree’s lean, never cut alone, and use wedges to guide the tree’s fall, among other safety precautions. Study the top of the tree in particular, and be ready to react quickly if it comes toppling down unexpectedly.

The pile of dead bark at the base of this ash is another sign of EAB infestation. Woodpeckers often strip the dying bark looking for insects, which helps create these piles.

“Unless a landowner intends to treat ash trees against the EAB, I recommend that they cut them while they are still alive,” said Joe. “It will be much safer and the wood will be more usable.”

Of course, any dead or diseased tree that you are about to cut could potentially drop limbs or tops on you, so always look up and study any tree before sawing. Make safety your first priority it all habitat management efforts.

If you are uncertain how to identify ash trees, here’s a quick video tutorial from Iowa State University Extension.