City Forester of Denver

The most destructive insect infestation to hit the Midwest in recent history is heading toward Denver; and the city forester, along with a mainstream musician, are using word play to fight it.

“Be a Smart Ash,” a public outreach campaign to thwart the emerald ash borer (EAB), is so successful that elected officials are throwing their full weight behind the project.

“The marketing department found the tagline got people to stop and take a look,” City Forester Rob Davis says. “It might not be conservative enough for some communities, but our mayor signed on. The pun’s only half of it; it’s really about the word ‘smart.’ We want residents to be informed.”

After discovering the insect 15 miles away in Boulder, the Forestry Department began planning to save the 330,000 ash trees in Colorado’s capital city. Convincing the city council included field trips to Chicago; Kansas City; and Madison, Wis. After talking to colleagues in other Midwestern cities that are battling invasions, Davis estimated $243 million in damage if leaders made no attempt to stop the insect’s spread. It took a year, but the council approved $150,000 a year for ten years to fund an awareness campaign.

“The expense of doing nothing was much greater than being proactive,” says Rob Davis. “Learning what other cities failed to do helped.”

The campaign now features a website where residents can see if they have an ash tree on their property, a waiting list for a replacement tree in case of infestation, and (of course) plenty of cheeky merchandise. But to the surprise of many, a “viral” music video is the biggest hit.

“The Botanic Gardens found a local band that wanted to take part and we went from there,” says Urban Forestry Program Manager Sara Davis. “The video is silly but educational.”

“It’s astounding that so many people watch a video about bugs, but it’s catchy and it’s different,” says Sara Davis. “Foresters are considered boring, so this video changed our image and got the program a lot of exposure.”

Titled “EAB Get Ready,” the videos received more than 45,000 hits and became widespread on social media, even being retweeted by the Canadian Forest Service. Colorado native James Laurie, also known as Johnny 5 of the Flobots, volunteered to write and rap the lyrics.

“I live five blocks from the gardens, so it felt like something I needed to do as a local,” he says. “I’m also in the target audience, so the questions I asked when writing the lyrics were the same questions foresters wanted answered for the general public.”

The Forestry Department will plant 10 percent of its population every year to replace infected trees. It also will host a tree climbing competition to promote proper tree care.