One of the most publicized restoration efforts is the decades-long attempt to breed blight-resistant American chestnut trees
for reintroduction into eastern forests. Even if successful, it might
not be enough to bring back this iconic species. That’s because
the threats to the chestnut have multiplied since the blight virtually cleared it from the forests. Today, the chestnut is vulnerable
not only to the blight, but to Phytophthora root rot, the chestnut
gall wasp, the Asian ambrosia beetle, and the Asiatic oak weevil,
which – despite its name – prefers chestnuts to oaks. Breeding
for resistance to more than one pest is exponentially harder than
breeding for resistance to a single pest or disease.
Then there’s climate change. No one knows how that will factor into the spread of exotic diseases and pests, but if trees are
stressed by climate change, that might make them more vulnerable to other threats.
Campbell believes climate change will “speed up the mix-master.” And while it’s hard to predict which exotics will do
better with warming temperatures and which will do worse, the
continent may become more hospitable to insects from semitropical regions.
So there’s the problem of trying to get the public to care and
policymakers to act quickly to stop the importation of new pests
and diseases, while at the same time we need to try to prevent
the spread of the ones that are already here. It’s hard for this not
to seem like pushing a rope uphill.
Given the track record of the past few decades, the outlook is
not good. Where policy changes have been made, they’ve made
a difference, Campbell and Schlarbaum noted in Fading Forests
III. But, the report added, “history shows that needed changes
are often slow to be developed and implemented, incomplete in
scope, inconsistent, poorly enforced, and underfunded.”
Asked whether she’s optimistic or pessimistic that timely
action will be taken, Campbell, who is also on the Carey
Institute’s forest pest team, admitted she’s “pessimistic but deter-
mined to keep trying to improve” things.
“Trees are wonders of nature that provide us with lots of
values. And it’s important for us to protect them. I like them
standing up and green, thank you very much,” Campbell said.
“I want people in decisionmaking positions or opinion-forming
positions to recognize the importance of protecting our natural
resources from this threat. Then they have to believe that there
are answers to these problems and have to seize those answers
and not just walk away.”
Gary Lovett acknowledged that, “It is hard not to feel
depressed about this, but we are not
helpless. This is a big problem, but it can
be fixed, or at least lessened.”
There are a handful of actions that
average Americans can take that would
make a difference, Lovett said: avoid
buying imported plants, don’t move
firewood, and speak up about the issue
by emailing or phoning your congress-
man or senator or reaching out to envi-
ronmental groups you belong to. “If
enough people do this, then it will get
on the radar screen of some legislators,
and that is the first step,” he said.
In June, a month and a half after the
Cary Institute partners released their
report, Lovett was convinced the issue
was finally getting some traction where
it counted. “We got a lot of media attention (with the release of the report)
and I didn’t think we would get that
much,” he said. The Washington Post,
An Institute team went to Washington, D.C., to talk to con-gresspeople and their aides. Lovett thought that they might get
20 or so people at a briefing, but they filled a 50-person room.
Then “we visited a lot of congressional offices and heard a lot
of positive things and not any negative things. I’m feeling very
good about it. There’s some momentum,” Lovett said.
The team is going to Washington again in July to talk to
congressional staffers working to draft legislation to address the
problem of keeping forest pests and pathogens out of the country, he said. “We have some of the committee staff, particularly
on the Senate Agriculture Committee, who are raring to go,” said
Lovett. But he’s also realistic: it’s a challenge keeping anyone’s
attention on forest pests in an election year in which both the
presidency and some Senate seats are being hotly contested.
“When we talked last time I didn’t know what was going
to happen. I’m more optimistic now about the prospects for
change than I’ve ever been,” he said.
Joe Rankin is a forestry writer. He lives in Maine.
This article was supported by Northern Woodlands magazine’s Research and Reporting
Fund, established by generous donors.