Our Opinion: Our forests are losing the fight to damaging insects

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Four years ago, the emerald ash borer was first detected in Dalton, and in the years since it has devastated ash trees in the state and region. Small insects do huge damage.

A study released Tuesday by the journal Ecological Applications reveals the extent of that damage. Property owners and communities are losing billions of dollars a year to the insect blight, according to the study's authors, and 63 percent of US forestland, about 825 million acres, is at risk of destruction. For the most part, the worst insects came from foreign countries aboard shipping containers to a land where they confront few natural predators.

Massachusetts is home to 57 types of destructive pests, the third highest total in the nation, according to the study, which its authors assert is the most comprehensive analysis of forest pests ever conducted in the nation. Leading the way with 62 is neighboring New York State, which can readily share its dangerous insects with us.

The emerald ash borer is probably the most devastating of the bugs. But as The Boston Globe reports, the Asian long-horned beetle has all but wiped out red maples in Worcester, the wooly adelgid has been claiming hemlock trees, oak crypt gall wasps are destroying black oaks, and winter moths are laying waste to forests in eastern Massachusetts.

Ridding the state and region of these pests without destroying useful insects is a daunting if not impossible task. The Ecological Applications study focused on preventive measures, such as banning the use of wood packing materials, such as pellets and spools where insects can hide and feed, in favor of non-solid-wood packing materials. It also recommended a ban on live plants being allowed into the country and higher penalties for those caught bringing in invasive pests or breaking other import rules.

Unfortunately, enacting these measures on a state level is inadequate and must be done at a federal level to be completely effective. Obviously, this is unlikely to happen in a politically paralyzed Washington on its way to a uniquely unproductive session. If nothing happens, however, the state, region and nation will continue to lose forest land, resulting in an immense loss to the environment, the economy and to a national self-image based to a degree on our woodlands.

Frank Lowenstein, deputy director of the Littleton-based New England Forest Foundation, told the Globe that trees are "the foundation of life in New England." That is what is at stake as the ash borer and other insects inflict their devastation.


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