May 23, 2009

Officials Scramble To Control Beetles Deemed “˜Public Enemy No 1′

Forestry officials in the Northeast are scrambling to track thousands of residents of Massachusetts searching for tree-eating stowaway bugs they may have inadvertently carried to campgrounds or vacation homes.

The insect is the Asian longhorned beetle, which has devastated trees in Worcester and surrounding communities.  Officials fear that some have hitched rides into other states in firewood transported by campers or seasonal homeowners.

"As far as New England is concerned, you should consider the Asian longhorned beetle Public Enemy Number 1," said Suzanne Bond, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, during an interview with the Associated Press.

Indeed, crews have cut down more than 20,000 infested trees in and around Worcester since the beetle was first detected last August,

The insect is particularly worrisome because, unlike most insects that consume just one or two types of trees, the Asian longhorned beetles eat virtually all hardwoods.  In the northeast, that puts a significant part of the economy at risk, including lumber, maple trees that produce maple syrup and the extremely lucrative fall foliage that lures visitors from around the world.

The threat is so dire that forestry officials in all six New England states, along with Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and the USDA, are examining camper registrations to determine where residents of the Worcester-area may have traveled.  Assuming that at least some carried their own potentially infested firewood, observers will explore the woods this summer to search for signs of the beetle.

States are also consulting property records to discover where Worcester-area residents may own second homes or hunting camps.

"We will be sending a questionnaire soon, asking if they brought firewood or landscape material to that recreation home in the past 10 years," New Hampshire Forest Health Manager Kyle Lombard told the Associated Press.

To date, they have discovered 300 properties in just 40 New Hampshire towns.

"I imagine the total number for all of New England is in the thousands," said Lombard, adding that the risk from second homes is greater than from campers, who typically burn their wood in just a few days.

"Think about all of the firewood that comes to a second home and just sits at the side of the house for three months," he said.

"Everything that's in that firewood emerges and flies into the woods."

Concerns about the beetle have prompted several states to prohibit out-of-state firewood.  Next month, New Hampshire will also enact a ban on out-of-state firewood at state and federal-owned campgrounds.  The only exception will be prepackaged, kiln-dried wood with its place of origin well marked.

Surveys have shown that more than one-in-four campers in New Hampshire carry firewood with their camping gear, some from as far away as California.

"Firewood is usually firewood for a reason," said Lombard.

"It's usually the junky, nasty, dead trees in someone's yard that they cut down and don't know what to do with. They are junky, dead trees for a reason, usually because they are infested with something."

Based on the 25 percent figure, Vermont estimates that 450 Worcester-area campers transported firewood to state campgrounds between 2002-2008.  The infestation had not yet been discovered at the time.

Although there been three previous infestations in the U.S. -- New York City in 1996, Chicago in 1998 and New Jersey in 2004 -- the Worcester case is the largest ever to occur beyond the beetle's native China.

"We haven't seen a threat like this to our forests probably since the chestnut blight in the early 1900s," said Lombard, referring the disaster that essentially wiped out American chestnut trees.

Officials believe the Worcester infestation grew undetected for ten years, providing the beetle ample opportunity to travel far beyond its normal range of up to half a mile.

"That's a lot of wood taken to vacation homes," Bond said. "That's' a lot of wood taken on camping trips. That's a lot of wood moved to gramma's house, so the potential that this insect has spread from the Worcester area is significant."

Mike Bohne, who heads the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Health group in New England, said his group is operating under the assumption that the beetle has escaped Worcester.

"Now, it's a question of how far has it gone and where is it?" he told the AP.

Other states have faced comparable problems with other pests. For instance, state surveys in Minnesota have shown that roughly 50 percent of the vehicles that visit parks overnight carry firewood. In 2005, that translated to about 50,000 loads of wood potentially infected with the emerald ash borer, which has infested 10 U.S. states and two provinces in Canada.

That infestation prompted Maryland officials Maryland to send letters to hundreds of Michigan and Ohio residents who own land in forested western Maryland, imploring them to leave their wood at home. This time, government and private organizations are collaborating to encourage residents to leave their firewood at home.

Leigh Greenwood of the Nature Conservancy told the AP that moving firewood causes problems nationwide, putting at risk everything from oak trees in northern California to Florida's avocado crops.

The groups are using Web sites and social networking to spread the word throughout the country.  These methods are deemed particularly useful since research shows the people most Internet savvy users are 18-29-year-olds, those who most need to hear the message.

"They are the kind of person who packs up the pickup, tosses some firewood in to save a little bit of money then drives 400 miles," Greenwood said.


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