goods that could host the Mediterranean fruit fly from being
imported from Aruba.
APHIS is charged with protecting “the health and value of
American agriculture and natural resources,” which is a broad
mandate. In addition to interdicting and containing forest and
agricultural pests, other programs under its direction involve
biotechnology, animal welfare, wildlife-damage management,
emergency response, and research, the agency said.
Of course, most Americans have probably never heard of
APHIS. This brings us to another problem: the lack of a ground-swell of indignation about the rising tide of imported forest
pests and diseases – the absence of a coalition of concerned
citizens willing to make a holy stink about the whole mess.
Part of that is a result of who we are as Americans these
days: increasingly urbanized and disconnected from nature.
Too many people can’t tell a maple from an oak, a pine from
a spruce. Green is seen as good, even if it’s a subdivision-sized
patch of invasive Japanese barberry or a thicket of autumn
Media attention usually fails to put things into context, and
the public’s attention span is short anyway. Absent a fast-moving
and visible epidemic, like that of the ash borer and the subsequent disappearance of street trees across entire cities, states,
and regions, much of the crisis is taking place out of sight and
mind, and in slow motion. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has
written of the concept of “diminishment” – how people fail to
notice the changes that lead to a poorer, less diverse, and less
resilient environment, because the changes take place in real
time and don’t tend to work their way into the public consciousness until, perhaps, people wake up one day and realize that the
world they’re living in has changed radically. It’s the old tale of
the frog in the pan that gets boiled because it doesn’t feel the
gradually rising temperature of the water.
“Government responds slowly and only partially, and then
trying to get them to say, ‘oops, that isn’t good enough, we need
to do more’ is almost impossible,” said Campbell. “And who is
really pounding on them, or offering them a parade to join?
Government leaders respond to two things: fear and pressure.
We haven’t created either of those two situations.”
Shippers and advocates for global trade have a powerful
lobby. Forest advocates are, like many forests themselves, frag-
mented. Campbell noted that she’s had trouble “even getting
advocates of urban forestry to join in on this thing.” Lovett said,
“APHIS, in particular, if you get them in a private moment, they
admit that they don’t hear from the forest advocacy community;
they only hear from the shipping community.”
Lovett is hoping the Cary Institute’s new report on the threat
and the Institute’s recommendations for remedies can help rally
a coalition of forestry advocates and policymakers to help turn
the tide and get some new protections in place.
Without that sort of effort, things don’t look good. “I saw one
estimate from a paper that the number of wood-boring beetles,
some of the most devastating pests, could easily triple before
2050,” said Lovett. “You could have three times more wood-boring beetle species in the country than we currently have.”
The Future of the Forests
Lovett’s job is studying forests, but he said that it’s “hard to say”
what U.S. forests will look like in 50 or 100 years, given the pressures they endure. If one species drops out of the canopy, another
will take its place – that’s a given – but when one species replaces
another, it leads to ecosystem changes that are hard to predict.
“What you think about when you think about severe damage
is dead trees,” he said. “That’s a short-term response to the
invasion of a pest. The longer-term response is that we are
losing some species and changing the species composition of
the forest. If we lose hemlock due to hemlock woolly adelgid,
Left: Students at the CBP Agricultural Academy in Frederick, Maryland, learn about
pests that can enter the United States via imports from other countries. Right: It’s not
just imports that are monitored. Here, a USDA APHIS representative inspects a shipment of logs that were fumigated at a port prior to being exported. The fumigation
process prevents the spread of any bacteria or insect that might cause harm to a
foreign country’s forests.
lots of things – birds, insects, soils – will change as well. The
same for ash. We notice the death and destruction, but the
longer-term impacts are just as substantial.”
Restoration efforts – attempts to breed pest-resistant tree
species – are costly, difficult, and require a huge investment
in infrastructure. They’re usually focused on producing faster-
growing trees for plantations rather than reintroducing an
extirpated species into a complex ecosystem, said Schlarbaum.
And they can’t be done from one place. As he noted, breeding
adelgid-resistant hemlocks to grow in Tennessee is different
from breeding them for Maine, where climate and growing
conditions are markedly different. Ironically, the need for
increased restoration efforts comes at a time when tree improve-
ment programs are in decline nationally, and funding, as Fading
Forests dryly notes, “is woefully deficient.”