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Friday, September 29, 2023
Niagara College focuses on education after discovery of invasive oak wilt
Evan DiValentino, the associate dean at Niagara College's school of environment and horticulture, stands next to an infected oak tree on campus. (Somer Slobodian)
Discolouration of oak leaves are one of the signs of oak wilt. (Somer Slobodian)
The infected oak tree at Niagara College is surrounded by eight other oak trees. The infected tree has lost most of its leaves. (Somer Slobodian)

A Niagara College official says the campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake is tackling the town’s oak wilt crisis with education, transparency and staying ahead of the game.

Evan DiValentino, the associate dean at the college’s school of environment and horticulture, said it will continue to deal with the invasive fungus that has spread to oak trees in town – including on its campus in Glendale.

“Our 125-acre campus here in Niagara-on-the-Lake is a prized jewel for us, but also a really important playground, if you will, a living lab for students, faculty and staff,” DiValentino said.

This is the third known case of oak wilt in Canada after one was found in Niagara Falls and another in Springwater, Ont., near Barrie.

DiValentino said the college will manage oak wilt the same way they’re dealing with another invasive plant called phragmites.

It will need to “get in front of it, be transparent, integrate into the curriculum and enhance implied learning,” he said.

“A top concern of ours is that we do this right,” he said.

Oak wilt is a slow-moving disease and if it spreads can cause tree death within one season.

It can be spread through the movement of firewood, root grafting beneath the ground and sap-feeding beetles.

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake confirmed the case on July 10 in a news statement.

The college confirmed in a news release on July 12 that it was on its NOTL campus.

“One of our team members first noticed poor tree health and observed the tree over a brief period of time,” DiValentino wrote in a follow-up email.

After the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announcement about the first confirmation of oak wilt in Niagara Falls, he wrote that they decided to report its potential case to the food inspection agency.

From there, the agency tested and confirmed the presence of wilt, he wrote.

“We have one tree that is officially affected, however, there are eight trees adjacent to it,” said DiValentino.

“Some of them aren’t doing so well,” he added.

The agency went back to the college last Thursday and taped off all nine trees.

Since oak wilt can spread from root to root, DiValentino anticipates those nine trees will need to be removed eventually. The agency ordered the college to leave everything as is for right now.

“We’ll be putting up signage this week as well to try and educate folks about the issue,” said DiValentino.

Close to the nine oak trees are another nine that the college is keeping an eye on.

DiValentino said he also believes this is an important learning opportunity for students who are “on the leading edge of this.”

This issue is not “disconnected from climate change and (the) forest fires that we’re seeing,” he said, and that because of climate change, the arrival of more invasive species is inevitable.

“Climate change is, I think, one of the biggest challenges of our generation and future generations,” he said.

The wildfire season is far from done, he noted, and Canada has burned more than its previous record already — with more than 10 million hectares of land already burned.

Climate change can intensify tree diseases, including oak wilt, and increase forest vulnerability, he said in an email to The Lake Report.

Oak wilt tends to dry out oak trees, he said, and dry trees burn easier.

“Combined with more frequent and severe wildfires, it threatens the health and survival of forests,” he said.

He said focusing on what can be done moving forward is important right now.

“That is where being transparent about all this and sharing it beyond the borders of the campus was really important to us,” he said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is encouraging residents to inspect their trees and look for signs of oak wilt, including dull green, brown or yellow leaves, cracks in the trunk, white, grey or black fungus, and early and sudden leaf drop.

Residents are also being told not to prune oak trees between April and November and are being asked not to move firewood.

Suspected cases of oak wilt can be reported to the agency online.

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