Unfettered commerce opens the door to an ecological nightmare
Next time you make pancakes, you'd better enjoy that maple syrup, because if
Asian long-horned beetles get established in North America, it could soon be a thing of
the past. A native of Korea, Japan, and northern China, the long-horned beetle has started
appearing in the United States, hitching rides in wooden pallets and packing materials.
Over the past few years it has been found in warehouses in 14 states that handle goods
sent from China. More alarmingly, it has been discovered boring into trees in and around
Chicago and New York City, including a stand of maples four blocks from Central Park. As
in a scene from a horror movie about alien invasion, all the trees had to be cut down and
burned. "There is no way to eradicate the beetle once it has been established,"
says an advisory from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "except to kill every tree
where it lives."
Why the drastic reaction? Because this big, beautiful beetle--about an inch long, jet
black with white spots and black-and-white striped antennae twice the length of its
body--could alter North America's hardwood forests forever. It has no natural enemies and
lives too deep inside trees to be affected by pesticides, so there is nothing to halt the
beetle's march through the continent's deciduous forests. Females lay their eggs in
hardwood trees; the larvae tunnel under the bark, pupate, and then emerge as adults by
boring holes through the trees, which eventually wither and die. The beetles eat most any
kind of hardwood, but have a special appetite for the maple. In China, where the
long-horned beetle is a major pest, American maples are often planted in sycamore
plantations as "trap trees" to attract the voracious bugs.
While it's impossible to calculate the beetle's potential ecological damage, the USDA
estimates the economic cost of widespread infestation may be as high as $41 billion.
"This is one bad bug," says Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Since the
solution to infestation--clearcutting and burning--is as bad as the disease, the first
step in dealing with the Asian long-horned beetle is to keep it from entering the country.
Accordingly, early last year the United States banned wooden packing materials from China
that have not been treated with heat or fumigants.
Enforcing the ban, however, is another matter. United States trade with China has grown
from $5 billion in 1985 to $71 billion in 1998. "With the volume of goods coming in
from China," says Rick Hoebeke, an entomologist at Cornell who advises the USDA,
"it's almost impossible to inspect all this material. The interim rule is too late.
The barn door's been open for a long time." The beetle infestation in Brooklyn, he
says, may be a decade old, and residents driving out of the city have reported the
distinctive two-tone bug hanging on to their windshield wipers. What's needed now is
public vigilance. The infestation in New York, for example, was discovered by a sharp-eyed
visitor from Chicago, where media coverage of the danger has been intensive.
With luck and watchfulness, we may be able to deal with the beetles that have already
arrived. (In Chicago, says city forester Joe McCarthy, it took tree-by-tree inspections
from aerial bucket trucks.) But the insect invasion can only intensify under the world's
free trade pacts, which seek to eliminate environmental restraints on international
commerce. Already Hong Kong is challenging the United States' packing material
restrictions as an illegal barrier to trade, and New Zealand is calling for the
elimination of U.S. pest safety standards in order to bolster exports of its own timber
products. Unless environmental protections can be built into international trade rules,
says Dan Seligman, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program, "Central
Park's shady paths, New England's foliage, and maple syrup on the breakfast table could
all become memories." Paul Rauber