Albion Monitor /News

US Forests in Danger Because USDA Eases Rules

by James Ridgeway and Jeffrey St. Clair

(IPS) NEW YORK -- At the turn of the century, the majestic chestnut tree filled up to 25 percent of the United States' eastern forests and supported a complex ecosystem.

By 1950, a rapidly spreading fungus -- traced only last year to a source in Japan -- had virtually wiped out the chestnut.

Later in the 1950s, the elm trees that lined the streets of New York City fell prey to Dutch elm disease, a plague that spread westward and destroyed two-thirds of the nation's elms. The apparent source of the disease was a single imported log, which rode the rails west from New York through Pennsylvania and into Ohio.

Today, U.S. scientists are in a panic over the threat to another abundant tree species, the maple.

New wave of invading pests and diseases shipped into the country, the result of rising -- and increasingly unregulated -- foreign trade

The cause of all their worries is a small, spotted bug found crawling out of a Brooklyn maple. The September discovery of the pest -- brought in this time from China -- has led some scientists to call for a preemptive strike that would cost the borough's streets and parks hundreds of its maple trees.

But it has also added to concern about loosening environmental regulations at a time of unrestricted international trade.

When they first saw the tiny telltale holes in the Brooklyn maples, authorities thought juvenile delinquents had been at work. Instead, scientists discovered one of two initial specimens of the seldom seen Asian longhorn beetle. The other was spotted in Amityville, Long Island.

"I gasped when I saw it," said E. Richard Hoebeke, a Cornell University entomologist who made the discovery. "I knew this wasn't a species native to North America."

Entomologists believe the bug could follow in the path of the chestnut and elm blights and end up killing upward of eight million trees on the East Coast, many of them maples. Such a plague would not only be an environmental tragedy but spell ruin for much of the tourist and maple sugar industries.

"If it's happened here, it certainly may rear its ugly head once again," Hoebeke said. "It could have a grave, profound impact on our nation's forests."

If the insects should advance, they could chew their way through some 300,000 acres of maple trees up and down the East Coast. Some scientists have recommended cutting down numerous maples in Brooklyn and Amityville in order to kill the invaders.

"Should this beetle escape from Long Island... the magnitude of damage could far exceed that of any insect, including the gypsy moth, in forests, orchards, and in urban areas," warns an ominous pest risk-assessment report.

The document, prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) along with New York state and local governments, contends that more than 800 million trees, covering 62 percent of the state's 18.6 million acres of forested land, are possible targets of the bug. Losses would run into the billions of dollars.

The report continues, "The risk of attack in the United States is probably much greater than in China, because we have a greater abundance of ALB's prime food source -- maples."

The Asian longhorn beetle is just one of a new wave of invading pests and diseases shipped into the country, the result of rising -- and increasingly unregulated -- foreign trade.

Many of these exotic insects and fungi, with names like the Asian gypsy moth, the pine bark beetle, and the Mexican pitch canker, are carried in on logs by companies that have been searching out wood supplies in the heart of the world's few remaining primal forests.

"As we start logging off the natural forests of the tropics and other remote areas, it will be very easy to overlook potentially dangerous pests and diseases," says Fields Cobb Jr., a University of California forest pathologist. "These agents are very obscure in their native habitats because natural forests in diverse ecosystems tend to suppress widespread pest outbreaks."

When the new diseases are brought into the United States, they can destroy not only species but whole ecosystems. The chestnut, for example, "was an unsurpassed source of food for wildlife," says Cobb. "Dozens of species depended on it, including the bald eagle."

In addition, Cobb notes, lesser-quality oaks took the place of the chestnut tree. This opened the way for oak wilt, a disease now threatening the oaks in the eastern forests.

Logs are coming to the country in steadily increasing numbers.

The USDA has eased regulations that could be seen as restrictions on international trade

The USDA, which regulates the trade in raw logs, has for years maintained a policy of "zero tolerance" when it comes to pest risks in timber.

Recently, however, the department has eased this blanket prohibition and set out rules for eliminating the bugs by a heat treatment or by fumigation with methyl bromide. (Apart from being one of the most deadly pesticides, methyl bromide is one of the most potent contributors to the depletion of the ozone layer.)

The change in policy resulted from the USDA's concern that its regulations "not be applied in a manner which would constitute a disguised restriction on international trade."

Today, international timber companies are importing raw logs from Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, and Brazil.

Rayonier, an international forest-products company, imports $1 million worth of timber each month to Oregon and California from New Zealand. The company also sends daily truck loads of uncovered Mexican green lumber to mills in Oregon.

The company operates in 60 countries and owns hundreds of thousands of acres of timber in Washington as well as in the southeastern U.S. and New Zealand.

Katie Amrhein is the manager of New Business Development for International Forest Products at Rayonier. In federal district court papers, she declares that her company "depends on imported green logs, lumber, and wood chips as a substantial source of revenue."

Rayonier expects its imports of green lumber from Mexico to more than double to $12 million in 1997. The firm says it is increasing its imports because environmental regulations are reducing the amount of timber available for commercial purposes in the United States.

But as Rayonier boosts timber imports, it is also increasing the number of potentially dangerous pests in the country.

An October 1996 report from the USDA's Wood Import Pest Risk Assessment Team revealed a variety of pine-eating bugs in logs Rayonier imported from southern Mexico.

Another international timber giant, the Seattle-based Weyerhauser, also imports wood from abroad. David Coburn, the firm's communications manager, says the company imported a "partial shipload" of pine logs from New Zealand this year.

Yet another threat looms just over the horizon in the form of an enormous program involving hundreds of companies anxious to import timber from Siberia. The bugs are rampant in this vast territory.

The U.S. banned the import of raw Siberian logs in 1990, citing the threat to the Douglas fir by the Asian gypsy moth or the spruce bark beetle. But in 1994, the government took steps to permit the import of raw Siberian logs under certain conditions.

West Coast environmental groups, led by Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATS) and the Pacific Environment and Resources Center, are going into federal district court in San Francisco to try and block the import of raw logs.

"We have no other option but to stop imports and return to the old zero-tolerance policy," says Patty Clary of CATS. "The alternative means increased use of methyl bromide and other pesticides. Even these are no guarantee that pests won't survive to destroy millions of dollars of domestic timber resources."

James Ridgeway is a political columnist for the Village Voice in New York. Jeffrey St. Clair is the environmental editor of the Washington-based newsletter Counterpunch

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Albion Monitor January 4, 1997 (

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