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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Bugs in Free Trade | Hog Tide | Condors Come Home to Roost

The Bugs in Free Trade

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

To find out how you can counter the threat of invasive pests, contact Dan Seligman at (202) 675-2387 or

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