Regulating live plants won’t be enough. The emerald ash borer and another destructive invader, the Asian long-horned beetle, hitchhiked to the United States not on live trees but on wooden packaging material used to move freight. The spotted lanternfly is thought to have arrived in egg form on landscaping stone. Regulators have responded by requiring wood packaging to be heat-treated or fumigated. Requiring shippers to use alternate packing materials could be an even more effective solution.
And just as coronavirus testing has been insufficient, so have inspections of incoming shipments for insects or diseases that could attack trees. Only a small fraction is inspected. Still, live insects are detected in an average of some 800 shipments annually, according to calculations by Faith Campbell, president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention. An unknown number slip through.
We also have a role to play, by being responsible consumers and transporters of plants. Andrew Liebhold, an entomologist at the Forest Service, told me he worries about pests hitchhiking on exotic plants carried on airplanes by travelers in luggage, which is barely inspected at all. He is also concerned about the boom in e-commerce, which the pandemic has, if anything, increased. “You can buy all kinds of weird plants and have them sent to you,” he said. “It’s a very difficult pathway to control.”
In recent years, a chorus of voices — including ecologists and public health experts — have called for preserving forests and trees to head off a host of ills, from urban heat stress to global climate change and human pandemics. Indeed, it has become clear that deforestation increases the chances that humans will be exposed to more dangerous pathogens.
But far less attention has gone to stemming the expanding tide of plagues that humans, through ballooning global trade, weak regulatory systems and sheer carelessness, have inflicted on trees. If we want forests to protect us, we first need to protect them.
Gabriel Popkin is an independent journalist who writes about science and the environment. He has written extensively about threats to trees and forests. He also leads tree identification walks in the Washington, D.C., area, where he lives.
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