Threat to the Douglas Fir
Could disease take them? If so,
what can be done to stop it?
By Thomas G. Dolan
there an imminent danger to the Douglas fir in the Pacific Northwest of being
decimated by an unknown insect or fungi? If so, is there any hope of stopping
this pestilence before it occurs? The short answer to both of these questions is
Yesterday’s Devastation "People
tend to think forests can last forever, and can be threatened only by fires,"
says Jerry Rust, secretary, Willamette Institute Of Biological Control of
Monroe, Ore. "But this is not the case." He points to two important sources of
eastern hardwood wiped out in the early 1900s. One was the American chestnut,
literally an American symbol, written about by Longfellow, and destroyed by the
import of a Chinese variety of chestnut which arrived carrying a fungus. The
second was the American elm, eliminated by Dutch elm disease which came through
Europe but also had its origins in China.
Today’s Threat That's history.
Breaking news is what’s currently happening in northern California. It started a
few years ago with a plague affecting the oak, called Sudden Oak Death Syndrome
(SOD). "What they thought was attacking just oak trees has been spreading into
the redwood forests and Douglas fir," Rust says. "For the better part of the
past year it's been heading north. Officials are very alarmed." Rust says that
he does not want to sound alarmist, but if the pestilence continues unabated,
the results for the Pacific Northwest could be "catastrophic." It's easy to see
why. In terms of the timber industry, nearly 4.7 billion board feet, about 70
percent of all the trees harvested in Washington and Oregon, are Douglas fir.
But the impact would go far beyond the timber industry. The Northwest's forests
are made up of about 85 percent firs, which gives the region its special
character. Take them away and with them go outdoor recreation and tourism, and
all the economic ventures that feed off of the forests, not to mention the many
other species that depend upon them such as wild salmon. The major problem, Rust
says, is that nobody knows what is causing the current disease.
Past Answers But there is hope.
Recent history has shown how a potentially devastating plague can be stopped. A
similar threat was faced in the 1980s with the gypsy moth. This moth decimated
particularly broad leaf trees such as maples and oaks, but never got to the firs
because a cure was discovered in the form of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a
relatively environmentally- benign toxin targeted right at the moth. The
bacteria hatches in the gut of the caterpillar at the larvae stage and then
explodes. Although there continue to be small outbreaks, this pest is carefully
monitored by the departments of agriculture in three western states, so whenever
a sign is detected, the area is sprayed and the threat goes away. At the time
Rust was a Lane County commissioner, and on the Oregon governor's task force to
deal with the gypsy moth. Rust explains that being involved in this process of
detecting a pest, finding the solution, and then monitoring it "caught the
imagination" of University of Oregon, Corvallis agricultural professors Dr. Bill
Dennison, a plant specialist, and Dr. Jeff Miller, a specialist in butterflies
and moths, along with a couple of technical writers, George Forester and Evelyn
Lee. In 1985 they formed the Institute of Biological Control, which continues to
monitor the gypsy moth and has been involved in other projects as well.
Future Hope Their current project
deals with the issue at hand. They are sending 1,000 Douglas fir seeds to
northeastern China to document what foreign pests, if any, are attracted to the
trees as they grow. With no government backing as of yet, the Institute using
its own funds has contracted with a company in Shandong Province, China called
Yantai Taxus. The company specializes in growing yew trees in the search of a
potential cancer cure. In China, ten separate lots in 10 separate areas will
each grow one hundred firs. "We want to know what is out there and once we know
something is indeed eating the firs, we want to see what it is to modify it and
prevent it from coming here," says Rust. China is a potential source of
infection because of the history of the chestnut and elm trees, and because
there is not much in the way of controls over logs being imported. "Bugs can
come in on the barge, on the stems, in the sawdust and any number of a variety
of ways," says Rust. If infections are found in China it’s not necessarily bad
news, as it eliminates one large area of worry. The Institute plans similar
future testing in Asia for Ponderosa Pine and Western Red Cedars, and plans
someday to go into Eastern Russia and Siberia where there are vast forests of
Western Larch. In this country the Larch is found primarily east of the
mountains in California and Oregon. Rust says that it will take five to 10 years
before the results of the China experiment are known and, moreover, this project
was conceived before the alarming news of SOD spreading to northern California
redwoods and firs.
Taking Action What should be done
now? "There should be multiagency task forces with ongoing efforts from the
State and Federal departments of agriculture, with plenty of help from the
private sector," Rust says. The timber industry can help by raising the level of
public awareness. "Put some heat on the politicians we've elected, go to
Congress and get task forces started," Rust suggests. "So far the pestilence is
moving our way silently, without a lot of fanfare. If it really does explode, it
will have our attention. But it would be better not to wait until then."
Coquille Logger is One
Tim Evernden of
Coquille, Ore., has been attending the OLC for more than 30 years. So
when he came to Eugene for the show last month, he thought he knew
pretty much what to expect. Much to his surprise, this year's show was
different because he went home the lucky winner of a new gun safe.
Evernden's name was drawn randomly from a list of 10,000 other loggers
who registered for the annual February event in Eugene. "I thought
winning the safe was great," said Evernden, a fifth generation logger
who owns and operates a 1981 Kenworth with a self-loader powered by a
550hp Cummins Engine. "I've never won anything in my life!" The 14-gun
safe was used as an incentive by the OLC to encourage show attendees to
register for the event. Previously, loggers didn't need to register for
the conference unless they were participating in the show's educational
seminars and industry meetings. The safe was purchased from Myrmo & Sons
of Eugene. The 2004 show will mark the Oregon Logging Conference's 66th
annual event. It will be held February 18-21 at the Lane County
Fairgrounds in Eugene.
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