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Horticulture educators take issue with AP story calling deadly fungus ‘latest tree threat’

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A lethal tree fungus first found by Schenectady County homeowners in 2007 was named New York state’s “latest tree threat” by the headline of an Associated Press story this month — a description that stretches the truth, according to local horticulture educators.

The article, written by AP staff writer Mary Esch, describes how town of Glenville homeowner Terry Phillips experienced his second outbreak of oak wilt disease last summer that infected trees in his backyard, following the first outbreak that arrived in 2007. The lethal fungus returned to affect the only two massive red oak trees on Mr. Phillips’s property that weren’t cut down in 2007. The state Department of Environmental Conservation allowed him to dig a trench around those trees in an attempt to safeguard them from the lethal disease.

Though Jerry Carlson, chief of forest health for DEC, said he is confident Mr. Phillips’s situation is an isolated outbreak, he isn’t quoted until near the end of the AP story. The presentation of facts in the story doesn’t make it immediately clear to readers that it is an isolated problem, said Susan J. Gwise, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. The AP story, which appeared in the Times on Monday, was published last week by newspapers across the country.

“Everyone grabbed onto it, because they saw the headline but didn’t really read the entire article to find out that this was happening seven years ago,” Mrs. Gwise said, adding that other horticulturists share her concerns. “This article was misleading because it’s not the latest threat, but the result of a small outbreak that took place in 2007. Even though this homeowner dug trenches around his trees, they were still infected. And that’s not surprising, because if it has taken hold it’s a very dangerous fungal disease.”

Foresters suspect the isolated case of oak wilt in 2007 originally arrived in Glenville, about 15 miles northwest of Albany, with infected firewood a homeowner brought from Wisconsin. The nearest known outbreak was about 200 miles away in Erie, Pa., when the outbreak arrived. Some 100 trees in the town were cut down in 2007, and their stumps were treated with herbicide.

The disease may spread underground by interconnected tree roots, insects infected with spores or airborne spores carried by wind, Mrs. Gwise said.

The risk of a future oak wilt outbreak in New York state is nominal, she said. But she said homeowners with red oak trees should be familiar with signs of the disease. Although the fungus may infect all oak species, red oak trees are the most vulnerable to the disease and may be killed within three weeks because of its rapid movement. The disease usually affects trees in June or July. Leaves typically show signs of scorching, and their outer edges could look burned.

“All someone has to do is bring some firewood where the disease is located and it could be here,” Mrs. Gwise said. “People with red oak trees in their yards should know about this and call us if they see any potential signs of disease.”

Oak wilt has been a pervasive threat to red oak trees in the upper Midwest, mid-Atlantic states and Texas, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

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