For the Akwesasne Mohawk people living along the Canadian border of New York state, black ash trees are more than just beautiful. Older members of the tribe teach the younger generation how to prepare the strong yet pliable wood for basket weaving. The ornate baskets are then used for hunting and trapping, as well as community bonding and artistic expression.

But the black ash trees are rapidly vanishing, threatening this tribal tradition.

Overharvesting and pollution have thinned out forests. And an impending invasion of an Asian beetle species could completely wipe out the region’s remaining black ash stands. The emerald ash borer — as radiant green as its name implies — travels a mere 4 kilometers a day, but the sale of infested firewood has spread the insect like wildfire.

The beetle’s larvae bore into the bark, cutting off a tree’s flow of nutrients and water. This invasive species has destroyed more than 50 million ash trees in the U.S., and an estimated 7 billion additional trees are under threat.

Taking charge of their trees

Markings left by emerald ash borer larvae on an ash tree (© AP Images)

State and federal programs are helping to restore areas damaged by the beetle, and experts are working to learn more about the beetle’s habits and predators. But the Akwesasne community has put together its own strategy.

Fearing a fate without black ash trees, the tribe created an environmental task force to monitor and protect existing trees. Members of the community walk through forests, injecting mature trees with a chemical similar to dish detergent, which is safe for humans but distasteful to beetles. They are also collecting seeds from mature trees to create a stockpile to grow more.

“These things were a gift,” says Aronhiaies Herne, principal of Akwesasne Freedom School, where children are reminded to value their land. “If you’re not thankful for those things, they’re going to be taken away someday.”

Sustaining local resources — such as food, forests and water — is a global challenge. But small-scale solutions are vital to protecting our environment. Learn about other effective and easily replicated tactics Native American communities are using in their homelands.