farmers, Hingston is not too sure. New Hampshire reinstituted
its ban on planting Cr-type Ribes after the rust was found. He’s
heard talk of a ban in New York. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a
total ban comes on again,” Hingston said.
Making a Difference
Maine, which still bans growing currants and gooseberries in
southern regions and black currant varieties statewide, is “in
a better place than some of our neighbors are, and I don’t take
any delight in that and no pride,” said Struble, Maine’s state
entomologist. Yet, since spores can travel hundreds of miles on
the wind, the existence of a mutated strain is “still worrisome”
for the state, he said.
Maine has some 700,000 acres of white pine and is the larg-
est producer of eastern white pine lumber in the nation, sawing
200 million board feet a year. It has the highest-production
white pine sawmill in the U.S. and three of the top five in the
Northeast. Together they saw lumber worth, conservatively, $80
to $100 million.
Banning cultivation of gooseberries and currants is one
thing. Bringing back the expensive and labor-intensive blister
rust war of the early- and mid-twentieth century is another. But
experts like Struble and surviving Ribe pickers like Waite and
Prior say that the campaign worked.
“I’m sure of it,” said Prior. “There was a period of time that
you saw very little infection in the pine and it was very difficult in the area to find a Ribes plant.” Part of that might have
been the fact that Vermont’s weather was a little dryer then and
spores didn’t live to make it into the needles, he said, adding he
believes that it was a combination of the two factors.
Struble said that studies done in the 1980s show that Ribes
control did cut the incidence of the disease around southern
Maine white pine stands, and an analysis of the economics
showed that the program was worth the cost. The biggest payoff
was in areas where white pines were regenerating, and particularly where the regeneration was scattered and every young pine
counted, Struble said.
Maine has included Ribes plants in the list of
species monitored as part of its Forest Inventory
Analysis plots. The data are mined for all sorts
of information on tree and shrub species and
growth rates. It shows that the “frequency of
Ribes inside the blister rust management area
and outside it are markedly different,” Struble
said. “You can find Ribes everywhere, but when
you get to southern Maine the frequency is way
down,” showing the efficacy of the eradication
and the fact that the state is still benefitting
from the efforts of yesteryear.
These days the ranks of the old Ribe pickers, who kept an eye out for rattlesnakes, bears,
and bulls as they tramped rough ground, eyes
peeled for the distinctive leaves of currants
and gooseberries, are growing thin. Both Prior
and Waite say they’re among the last of their
Waite is left with fond memories of his days
as a crew chief on Ribes patrol. “I still have my
Ribe stick, carved and stamped with my name,
sections of shotgun barrel pinned at each
end to prevent splitting. I cannot imagine the
miles I walked with it. I still have some of my
reports, too, and a couple old signs and posters
from the day. It was a great job for someone
happier in the woods than in a cubicle somewhere.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry and nature from his home in
This article was supported by Northern Woodlands’ Research and Reporting Fund, established by generous donors.
This map of just one town shows how crews worked parcel by parcel to eradicate
currants. And then returned, sometimes a decade later, to re-eradicate.