By Randy Edwards
They come in many forms, from metallic green beetles to microscopic fungi unseen by the naked eye. And they are deadly.
More than 400 non-native insects and plant diseases are now permanently established and wreaking havoc in North American forests, which are defenseless against the attacks.
These invaders — which often hitch a ride on imported plants — are taking a disastrous toll on ecosystems from dying oak trees in California's woodlands to the standing ghosts of dead Fraser fir on North Carolina mountain peaks. Some new, dangerous arrivals, like the emerald ash borer and the hemlock woolly adelgid, have recently found their way to West Virginia.
Homeowners, forest landowners, state governments, cities and towns, and timber- and horticulture-related businesses all face billions of dollars in lost revenues or costs to control the pests. In West Virginia, where mountain forests are the foundation of nature-based tourism and the woods products industry, these infestations threaten nature and our economy.
To help solve the problem, The Nature Conservancy, working with businesses and scientists in West Virginia and across the country, is supporting new regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would help block these non-native pests and protect American businesses and native trees.
In addition, The Nature Conservancy and a popular West Virginia outdoor tourism business have launched a collaborative effort to heighten awareness about the ecology of West Virginia’s forests – including threats to those forests from insects and disease – by tapping a built-in audience of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts.
Getting a Free Ride
Americans imported more than 500 million live plants in recent years, and many arrived with unintended hitchhikers. Imported plants, and, to a lesser extent, cuttings and seeds, have repeatedly served as a pathway for devastating pests to reach U.S. forests.
Of the 25 most damaging forest pests introduced since the mid-1800s, 18 are believed to have arrived on imported plants — including the hemlock woolly adelgid and and the chestnut blight. (Others, like the sirex woodwasp and the Asian longhorned beetle, arrive in wood packaging materials).
No importer intends to introduce a damaging pest – but these insects and disease-causing pathogens are extremely difficult to detect during inspections – especially when the numbers of plants entering the country are so large – and growing larger.
Because the pests and diseases arrive on live hosts, they can survive a relatively long time. In many cases, they live long enough to arrive at a nursery, where they can spread to other plants and in some cases even develop new characteristics by breeding with related diseases or insects already present.
And since nursery stock is distributed all over the United States, many plants end up in places where it is a short hop to local forests.
Preventing New Invasions
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is the primary agency tasked with preventing the entry of potentially invasive pests and pathogens though nursery plant imports and other pathways.
First adopted in 1918, U.S. regulations have remained fundamentally unchanged as international trade in plants has mushroomed. The USDA, industry and conservationists agree that stronger federal regulations are needed to prevent invasive insects and diseases from reaching our shores and spreading into American yards, cities and forests.
The Continental Dialogue has met several times with the USDA to encourage rapid implementation of improved regulations so that risky plant imports can be addressed more quickly and effectively. Dialogue partners commend APHIS for moving in the right direction, but recommend an eleven-point plan of action.
The USDA’s proposed regulations are a step in the right direction and will enable government officials to do more to prevent foreign pests and pathogens from entering the country, rather than have citizens, business owners and communities bear the costly burden of controlling an invasion.
What You Can Do
You can help stop the introduction and spread of invasive foreign pests and diseases. Help protect the economy and native plants and animals by following these guidelines:
- Ask your local nursery how they keep their plants free of invasive insects and diseases, and let them know you support those practices.
- Learn to identify invasive forest pests. If you spot an invasive pest or disease on trees in your community, click here to learn how to report it.
- Write to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in support of better regulations to protect the trees in your yard and your community.
- Don't "pack a pest" when traveling. Fruits and vegetables, plants, insects and animals can carry pests or become invasive themselves.
- Don't move firewood or cuttings or live plants more than 50 miles (it can harbor forest pests) and throw out food before you travel from place to place.
- If you’ve experienced the destruction of invasive pests, either in your yard or while exploring the forest, send us your story and photographs for possible publication.
- Ask your local nursery staff for help identifying invasive plants so they won’t become a problem for your yard or local trees.
- Clean your boots before you hike in a new area to avoid spreading harmful weed seeds and diseases such as sudden oak death.
- Volunteer at your local park, refuge or other wildlife area to help remove invasive species. Help educate others about the threat.
- Support the Conservancy’s work to protect trees.
» On January 15th, the Wall Street Journal trekked to West Virginia's treetops to report on this story. See a video and learn more about the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid.
Randy Edwards is a Senior Media Relations Manager based in Dublin, Ohio