PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Aroostook Band of Micmacs are trying to grow a new, healthy generation of ash trees and show youngsters career paths in science.
On one of the coldest days of the year in early March, second-grader Gitpu Paul joined other students and tribal members in a high-tunnel greenhouse near the Micmacs’ headquarters, planting hundreds of brown ash tree seedlings that they helped collect last fall.
In the spring, Paul and his peers will be giving away ash saplings and planting them on tribal lands. It’s partly a science project for the kids and partly an investment, said Micmac planner and Maine historian Dena Winslow.
“Ash trees are probably the most significant of any species to this tribe,” said Winslow.
According to the Micmac and Wabanaki Confederacy origin story, the hero Gluskap shot four arrows at four different white ash trees that each gave birth to the Passamaquoddy, Penobscots, Maliseets and Micmacs.
The Micmacs and others have long used brown ash trees for making baskets, which potato farmers relied on through the 1960s. But in recent decades, as tribal elders worked to preserve the basket-making craft, good brown ash has been harder to find in northern Maine, said Winslow, who grew up on a dairy farm in Mapleton.
Now an invasive insect, the emerald ash borer, is destroying millions of ash trees all over North America.
“The insect came from China in the 1990s, likely on wooden pallets,” Winslow said. Emerald ash borers arrived to find plenty of ash trees for its larvae to feed on and no natural predators. The infestation has already killed millions of ash trees, including in states like Pennsylvania and New York where ash is grown for baseball bats, and the long-term cost of treating, removing and replacing infested ash trees could reach more than $10 billion, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Although the borer hasn’t yet been found in Maine, it is in New Hampshire and Quebec. “We’d be really surprised if it’s not here. It’s just that nobody’s found it yet,” Winslow said.
But, if the Micmacs’ efforts work, in the next few decades there will be healthy ash trees to harvest across northern Maine and forest stewards to keep them going.
“This project has a whole lot of components, one of them being to preserve these trees for the future,” Winslow said. “And I’m attempting to interest kids in a career they might not have thought about, such as forestry or natural resources.”
To sprout the ash seeds they collected, Winslow and Micmac environmental specialist David Macek showed the students how they can work with Mother Nature. Since ash seeds can take as long as 15 years to sprout, Macek, Winslow and the youths took the seeds through multiple years of freeze-thaw cycles, with bi-weekly intervals in and out of a freezer.
The youths also recently observed a timber harvest on tribal land at the former Loring Air Force Base. This spring they are slated to visit the Maibec lumber mill in Masardis, a birchbark canoe maker in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Mount Carleton and the New Brunswick Botanical Garden, Winslow said.
In the spring, the Micmacs’ youth council will host a forum on the ash borer with state foresters, and they’ll be giving away ash saplings for free to members of the tribe and general public.