Monday, August 04, 2008

Kiss Your Ash Goodbye

Borders, according to economists, are evil things, and as such, should be as porous as possible. The ease with which things can be imported and exported is of great concern: it's all about efficiency. Obviously, then, there is a hostility to anything that can be construed as a barrier -- a tariff here, an inspection station there, quality standards on the one hand, a quarantine of suspicious goods on the other. But the results of doing things the economists' way are disastrous.

We tend to think of ecological imperialism as being aggressive in one direction: a First World entity manipulating the flora and fauna of a Third World's for the former's benefit. An example would be the politics of bananas. But it goes the other way, too. Or, better to say, just as military and cultural imperialism often results in "blowback" to the aggressor, so too does ecological imperialism.

My "shorthand," or, I suppose, synedoche for this particular phenomenon is "Montezuma's Revenge." During globalization 1.0, the Native Americans were of course annihilated by diseases like smallpox to which the Europeans were mostly immune but the indigenous Americans had no natural resistance to. Whole civilizations were wiped out. Yet the Indians had their own biological counterpunch: syphilis, previously unknown in Europe.

It's ironic that the nation with the longest history of (purposefully or not is irrelevant) doing the moral thing and minding its own business, of more or less going about the business of trying to improve its own society rather than remake, conquer or otherwise influence another's, has been the place of origin for most of the pathogens that have decimated the flora and fauna of imperialist countries during globalization 2.0. I'm talking about China, and what could be called the "Son of Heaven's Revenge," the same dynamic as described above, only having to with plants rather than people.

Interior Asia is a lot like interior North America and Europe. Continental climate, space, biological diversity. So similar plants have evolved in parallel, yet in imperfect parallel. Just as Europeans had resistance to certain diseases the Native Americans didn't, Chinese flora have developed resistance to certain pathogens European and American plants have never been exposed to. This has been known since the beginning of the chestnut blight, a disease which destroyed "about 25 percent of the forests in the eastern United States, with an estimated 4 billion trees from Maine to Mississippi and Florida," and the solution to the problem -- a quarantine of natural material coming from Asia until it is certain that the cargo is benign -- was just as apparent. But rigorous inspection and threat of quarantine doesn't make Western Crapitalists rich, nor economists happy.

So since then we've had Dutch Elm Disease, Sudden Oak Death, Oak Wilt, and now, the Emerald Ash Borer which is spreading rapidly:

Ash borer spreads to Missouri Bootheel
By Kim McGuire

A green beetle that has destroyed millions of ash trees across eight states has been discovered in southern Missouri, where state and federal officials have converged to determine the extent of the infestation.

Recent tests confirm that seven beetles caught in traps near a campground at Wappapello Lake north of Poplar Bluff are emerald ash borers, an insect native to Asia that has decimated ash trees from Virginia to Michigan.

The invasive species has also been found in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, where it was found two years ago.

The first infestation in the United States was reported near Detroit in 2002. Since then, the borer has killed almost 30 million ash trees and caused millions of dollars worth of damage in Michigan, conservation officials there say.

"People that I talk to say losing these 50- to 60-foot-tall trees that have provided shade to their homes for decades is a little like losing a family member," said Robin Usborne, who works with beetle researchers at Michigan State University. "It's a very difficult thing to watch — to see a neighborhood just transformed. But that's what happened in Detroit."

Missouri's ash trees make up about 3 percent of the state's forest. However, that number is substantially higher in urban areas, where 14 percent of street trees and 21 percent of trees in parks are ash. Those percentages are even greater in Forest Park and on the Gateway Arch grounds, according to a state Department of Conservation survey.

While particularly hardy to such things as drought and heat, ash trees have no defense against the borer, whose larvae disrupt the tree's vascular system, killing it from the inside. Up to half of a tree's canopy will die within a year of infestation.

"Ash trees are survivors, but the emerald ash borer is something entirely unto itself," said Chip Tynan, a horticulturalist with the Missouri Botanical Garden. "It's going to have a major impact on ash trees."

Given how quickly the borer has spread through the United States, Missouri agriculture and conservation officials have been on the lookout since 2004, setting traps that use chemicals to mimic the smell of a weakened ash tree.

They say it was only a matter of time before the borer showed up in Missouri. And given where it showed up, they suspect they know how it arrived.

"The discovery of this highly destructive pest at a campground is a strong indication it probably arrived in firewood," said Rob Lawrence, an entomologist with the state department of conservation. "If people knew how devastating this insect can be, they would never consider bringing firewood in from out of state."

A spokeswoman for the state agriculture department said it's too soon to tell what kind of measures the state will take try to stop the spread of the emerald ash borer.

Crews are currently surveying the infestation area around Lake Wappapello, and the results will dictate future battle plans.

In other states where the emerald ash borer has been found, containment plans have focused on stopping the transportation of firewood and trees from affected areas to prohibit the insects from hitchhiking out. Missouri's borer plan, which was approved only a few months ago, allows for the state department of agriculture to establish a quarantine in affected areas.

For now, state officials are encouraging residents not to transport firewood from one site to another. Instead they suggest campers buy firewood locally.

"We have found that humans spread emerald ash borer faster than anything else," Usborne said. "They are capable of flying up to a quarter of a mile, but that's not much when you consider the great distances they're traveling."

Usborne said there are a few insecticides that work against the emerald ash borer but they can be costly and difficult for homeowners to use. More problematic, she said, is the fact that most people don't realize they have a beetle problem until it's too late.

Illinois only recently found out just how difficult it is to contain the emerald ash borer.

The beetle was discovered in northeastern part of the state by a sharp-eyed homeowner who noticed ash trees dying in the subdivision. Later surveys found the beetle in five other counties in that part of the state, spurring a firewood quarantine among other things.

Despite those efforts, the borer was found just two weeks ago near Bloomington, about 60 miles north of Springfield.

"I think this just shows just how capable the beetle is at moving on," said Jeff Squibb, a spokesman for the Illinois agriculture department.