Invasive Forest Pests and the Future of New England Forests and Forest Products

Nonnative forest pests are among the most urgent threats to forest health in the United States.

Chestnut blight, caused by a fungus introduced from South East Asia, wiped out most mature American chestnut trees in the early 20th century. Dutch elm disease, another fungal infection, decimated metropolitan trees in the latter half of the century.

The threat posed by invasive forest pests and diseases is not new, but it is growing. Currently, hemlock woolly adelgid is pushing northwards, leaving a trail of dying eastern hemlock stands in its wake. Emerald ash borer has already killed tens of millions of ash trees, and many other pests are established and spreading.

Introduced pests affect all fifty states, but they are particularly problematic in the Northeast, followed closely by the upper Midwest and California. The ecological impacts of such infestations, such as habitat loss, bird declines, and diminished carbon storage, can be devastating. The economic damage is substantial, costing homeowners an estimated $2.5 billion annually and municipalities an estimated $2 billion.

To address the mounting regional toll, the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation convened a roundtable dialogue on Invasive Pests and the Future of New England Forests and Forest Products on February 7, 2019 at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in North Woodstock, New Hampshire. A newly published report details the roundtable’s discussion and outcomes.

Because of the wide-ranging impacts of invasive forest pests, the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation deliberately selected the roundtable’s 21 participants to represent a broad cross-section of forest shareholders. They included landowners, foresters, pallet manufacturers, conservation practitioners, researchers, and staff of state and federal agencies.

The three overarching goals of the roundtable were to provide an opportunity to discuss the current science about invasive pests in the Northeast; to understand the pressures on the wood products industry and the steps that state and federal agencies are taking to prevent the arrival of exotic pests; and to share perspectives and knowledge across sectors for more collaborative and informed science, policy, and practice.

Unlike most regional discussions and actions about forest pests and diseases, which focus attention on the important task of restricting spread across states, the Hubbard Brook roundtable focused on preventing invasion in the first place. Accidental introductions of nonnative pests and diseases are a direct result of rapidly expanding global trade, and there have been some efforts to curb opportunities for unintentional importation. In 2005, the U.S. joined 150 countries in adopting the International Standard for Phytosanitary Measures #15 (ISPM-15). These regulations aim to reduce international transport of plant pests in wood packaging materials and have successfully decreased infestation rates by between 36 and 52 percent. Even so, an estimated 13,000 infested shipments are still entering the U.S. each year.

Implementing policy to effectively prevent invasive species is challenging for a variety of reasons. For example, new introductions are unpredictable, and once a species becomes established it can be difficult to reverse. The sheer volume of trade makes enforcement daunting, and new policy would impact exports as well as imports—wood pallet production accounts for 40 percent of overall U.S. wood hardwood production, so any changes to the market would necessarily affect domestic manufacturers, too.

Even so, there are solutions. The report highlights three primary avenues for action: government action; voluntary action by companies, trade associations, product purchasers, and others; and education, outreach, and engagement.

The report includes examples that the roundtable participants discussed for each type of action. Government actions could include increasing inspection and raising penalties for noncompliant shipments; investing in and supporting capacity-building of the U.S. trading partners’ ISPM-15 implementation; releasing government statistics on imports and pest outbreaks; and creating new regulations on pallet disposal within the U.S.

Voluntary actions might include eliciting commitments from large wholesale retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, and Target, as part of their overall sustainability plans, and engaging with NGOs to focus attention on companies not taking action. The group also discussed creating a third-party program that would certify “forest friendly shipping,” and linking the risk of invasive pests to carbon sequestration.

Finally, the report details the need to identify the audiences most likely to induce change and suggests key messages for outreach and education efforts. It emphasizes the importance of having financial support from the government for monitoring and research, identifying infestation sources without casting blame, encouraging pest free shipping, and communicating the cost of invasives to land managers and property owners.

Though the problem of invasive pests is complex, meaningful action to reduce the risk of infestation is possible. The roundtable on Invasive Pests and the Future of New England Forests and Forest Products underscores the benefit of dialogue across sectors to generate next steps for protecting our forests and forest communities.

Read the report: "Invasive Forest Pests and the Future of New England Forests and Forest Products."