Caterpillars, controversy in West Tisbury
In a busy meeting last week, the West Tisbury selectmen asked the town tree warden what can be done about the infestation of caterpillars, appointed members to a committee to study town space needs and resources, and heard another plea from the finance committee to reduce the burden on West Tisbury from the Up-Island Regional School District.
Winter moths, tent caterpillars, and gypsy moths
Jeremiah Brown, town tree warden and insect control officer, met with the selectmen in response to an invitation from executive secretary Jennifer Rand, who has fielded, she said, more than a dozen complaints about the devastation currently being caused by caterpillars across the Island.
A leafless treescape in West Tisbury. Photo by Susan Safford
Mr. Brown was frank. "We're in bad shape," he said "All four of the nastiest caterpillars are having banner years right now." However, Mr. Brown was able to offer very little remedy. The defoliation, he explained, is currently the work of the forest tent caterpillars and the European winter moth larvae. The eastern tent caterpillar, the one that builds silver-gray nests, is a different creature and only a minor pest. (An article in last week's Times also identified the cankerworm as a part of the plague.) The gypsy moth caterpillars, which are expected to appear in large numbers this year, will add to the problem in about a month, just in time to attack the new replacement leaves.
The last time the forest tent caterpillar caused widespread devastation was 100 years ago, though there have been other peak years in between then and now. The European winter moth is entirely new to the United States - this is its second year in southeastern Massachusetts - and it is difficult to predict how much or little it will thrive here in the long run. Mr. Brown said that a parasitic fly found in Europe, a natural enemy of the winter moth, was released in Nova Scotia, where the winter moth first appeared in North America, with good results. Researchers at UMass Amherst are experimenting with the fly on Cape Cod. One problem is that no one knows what beneficial insect the fly might also attack.
Mr. Brown said that it is possible to spray trees and protect them from the caterpillars, but spraying costs $10 to $20 per tree. While the town might decide to protect a few individual trees, "Where do you stop?" he asked. Spraying roadsides or all town-owned trees would be very expensive. Aerial spraying of large tracts of land would be even more expensive and raises questions about spending public funds on private property.
Ms. Rand interjected that she has had a call from one town resident, an organic farmer, who is emphatically opposed to spraying anywhere in her neighborhood. Mr. Brown uses a product called Conserve, which its maker claims to be non-toxic to birds or other animals, but he said that he understood the caller's objections. Even if the money could be found, there are probably others in town who would object to widespread spraying.
To homeowners, Mr. Brown offered some advice. "The defoliated trees will push out new leaves, but the trees are going to be weakened. The best thing I can tell you is to water your trees. Water, water, water. Do not fertilize them or stress them in any way."
He said that healthy trees can withstand three or even four years of defoliation. If the trees are already stressed, as some may be from the recent droughts, two years might be enough to kill them. There has already been some mortality along the roadsides.
In response to a question, Mr. Brown said that girdling the trees with sticky tape will prevent caterpillars on the ground from climbing trees, but is of limited value. Caterpillars hatch in the trees and descend on webs only when they have exhausted that tree's leaves. Sticky tape would protect an uninfected tree, but might have to be reapplied often to prevent caterpillars climbing over the bodies of their trapped associates.
William Haynes suggested that it is already too late to do very much this year, but planning should be done now for next spring. Mr. Brown agreed that early May next year would be the time to act, and the selectmen appointed him a committee of one to make a recommendation to the voters.
School funding, continued
In other business, the West Tisbury finance committee (FinCom) met with the selectmen to urge them to take some action on the report made by consultant James Halley of Harkins, Kelley and Associates, which concluded
that running the Up-Island Regional School District (UIESD) solely in the West Tisbury school this year would have saved the taxpayers in the three up-Island towns about $900,000.
Alexander DeVito, speaking for the FinCom, conceded that superintendent of schools Dr. James Weiss places the savings at $750,000. "But whatever it is, it is a fairly large number, and West Tisbury's share of that number is probably five percent of our taxes," Mr. DeVito said. "The leaders of the town have the obligation to pursue the process to see whether we can in fact lower the taxes by five percent."
Richard Knabel, newly elected member of the FinCom, read a statement which made three points: the per-pupil expenditures of the UIRSD are among the highest in Massachusetts; the cost of operating the Chilmark School is close to a million dollars a year for approximately 50 students; and there is no educational or fiscal justification for operating two schools in the district.
Although Mr. Knabel implied that the Chilmark School should be closed, neither Mr. DeVito nor the selectmen thought that a realistic scenario. The Chilmark selectmen have been firm about their town school, and an earlier report prepared by consultant Mark Abraham concluded that dissolving or reconstituting the UIRSD would be very expensive for West Tisbury, largely because of transportation subsidies paid by the state to school districts but not to individual towns. That report, commissioned by a three-town task group, Mr. Knabel dismissed as "opaque" and "written by, for, and to CPAs." While other members of the FinCom have questioned the objectivity of Mr. Abraham's methods and challenged some of his assumptions, none has disagreed with his major conclusion.
Mr. Knabel and Mr. DeVito urged a joint meeting with the selectmen, the FinCom, and the UIRSD committee.
Kathy Logue, chairman of the UIRSD, expressed annoyance that the school committee had not been invited to the current meeting, but she said that she would try to get her committee to attend the selectmen's meeting scheduled for last night.
The space needs committee
Nearly two months after the town meeting voted that a committee be formed to study all of the space needs and resources of the town, the selectmen completed interviewing applicants and selecting a committee. The seven members will be Les Cutler, Bea Phear, Kent Healy, Chuck Hodgkinson, Hermine Hull, Kathy Logue, and Bob Swartz. Two other persons who applied for membership were also interviewed last week. Joe Eldredge told the selectmen that he is chiefly interested in the town hall project and would prefer not to be on the committee, but he would be pleased to serve as an unpaid consultant. Sue Hruby warned the selectmen that she will be off-Island in August, when the committee will be hard at work. The selectmen named her an alternate.
Kathy Logue was asked to serve as temporary chairman until the committee organizes and elects one. The charge to the committee is a large one. It is to survey all town-owned properties and the future needs of all town departments, and make recommendations to the town in October as to what the next steps should be. Selectmen Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter told the prospective members that they can expect to meet at least every other week, with subcommittees conducting research in between.