Beetle control effort readied

Asian long-horned pest, fatal to trees, to be fought with nicotine pesticide

March 26, 2000|By David Stout | David Stout,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Tree experts around New York City and Chicago are girding for a warm-weather offensive against a creature, little more than an inch long, that could destroy as much woodland as some of the worst forest fires in history.

The creature is the Asian long-horned beetle, which kills trees by eating them from the inside and which has no natural enemies in the United States. Once a tree is infected, it is doomed. Thousands of trees have been felled and ground into bits to try to check the beetles' advance.

Federal and state agriculture officials have spent several million dollars and expect to spend millions more in fighting the beetle, which was first spotted in the United States four years ago.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has assigned some of its top experts to the campaign. Now, the department and the Environmental Protection Agency are weighing whether to use a nicotine-based pesticide, one they think would carry minimal risks to people and other trees.

"This is potentially a very, very serious problem," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said in a recent interview. "If established, this beetle could have a severe impact."

Officials who have followed the problem say huge tracts of forest could be ruined, changing landscapes for generations. Vermont, which relies on maple trees for its syrup business and its famed autumn foliage, has particular reason to worry. Maples are among the many trees the beetle loves to dine on, although none of the creatures have been spotted in the state.

Female beetles bore deep into trees to lay their eggs. When the eggs become larvae, they eat their way back out, flying away as adults and leaving their doomed hosts pocked with perfectly round holes. Because adult beetles are active only in the summer and fall, their pursuers are mapping their plans now.

Glickman and several others involved in the fight said that they were optimistic and that this year would be the turning point. They think the nicotine-based pesticide will work even though others have not. But they conceded that there was a long battle ahead.

"We're going to eradicate it," said Vic Mastro, an entomologist with the Department of Agriculture. "It's not going to be an easy or short process. But we said that at the beginning."

In the beginning, there was Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The beetle's first known outpost in this country was discovered there in 1996, after the beetle-colonists traveled from China in a shipping container.

Before long, the beetles were found in other sections of Brooklyn, then in parts of Queens and Manhattan. Soon, they were in Amityville, and soon after that elsewhere on Long Island. More than 4,000 trees were cut down in the New York region, some of them magnificent giants that were saplings when Lincoln was president.

"We thought we had it off the mainland," said Joe Gittleman, the federal Agriculture Department's leading beetle fighter in New York.

So there was a sense of dread in 1998 when long-horned beetles were found in the Chicago area, perhaps because young beetles hitched a ride on a truck fender, or in logs from infected trees. More than 1,000 infected trees have been cut down around Chicago.

The Forest Service and local agencies have been planting new trees, of species less susceptible to the beetles, but it will be years before they are as tall as the ones that were lost.

Officials say the Chinese have agreed to treat wooden shipping pallets, in an effort to stop more beetles from coming to the United States. Quarantines have been imposed on firewood from areas where infected trees have been found. Scores of warehouses have been inspected.

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