By PAGE IVEY
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Months of heavy rains throughout the South are forcing International Paper Co. to look beyond its usual suppliers for wood for its central South Carolina mill and turn to places that are known to have tree-destroying gypsy moths.
The extensive steps federal regulators are requiring the company to take to make sure the pests don't get a foothold in the region highlight just how worrisome the moths are.
The Forest Service says gypsy moths defoliate a million acres of trees each year in the U.S. Repeated defoliation can permanently damage or kill trees. South Carolina does not have the moths; Virginia, New York and Massachusetts -- places International Paper is turning to for wood -- do.
"We don't want gypsy moths in South Carolina," said Laurie Reid, entomologist with the state Forestry Commission. "We've had small outbreaks where egg masses get transferred down somehow. ... It's something that can easily happen."
All or part of 20 states from Maine to Wisconsin to the northeastern corner of North Carolina are under gypsy moth quarantine. That means items from Christmas trees to recreational vehicles -- anything that can host an egg mass -- has to be inspected or given special handling instructions before being moved from the quarantine area.
International Paper said wood from Virginia, New York and Massachusetts will be inspected twice for egg masses before train cars head to South Carolina. Eggs will either be removed or the wood will be removed from the shipment.
Workers at the South Carolina mill will do a third inspection and destroy any egg masses they find, said Richard Shaw, director of fiber supply for Memphis, Tenn.-based International Paper.
The company won't release information about pricing of raw materials or products, citing legal and regulatory concerns. However, Shaw said the company tries to avoid the costly shipping and special handling precautions by buying its wood locally -- more than 90 percent of the wood used at its Eastover mill comes from South Carolina forests.
But in the past six months, rainfall across the South -- except Florida -- has exceeded normal precipitation by as much as 20 inches, according to the National Weather Service. The soggy ground makes it difficult to get heavy logging equipment into forests for harvesting.
"This is an atypical scenario, simply because the South got hammered with a lot of rain," said Nolan Lemon, spokesman for the U.S. Agriculture Department in Raleigh, N.C. "They were faced with shutting down the mills because they didn't have a supply of logs.
"In the interest of keeping those mills open and keeping those jobs going, (the Agriculture Department) is working with the company and working with the state to find a way they can get a supply of logs while safeguarding those logs against the spread of any plant pests."
Shaw said the company has found suppliers in nearby states where there is no gypsy moth infestation so it will not have to ship any wood from infested areas after April 1, when the risk is greater and handling requirements are more stringent.
The gypsy moth is not a native pest. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the first outbreak occurred in 1889 -- about 20 years after the moth was introduced into the United States by a French scientist living in Massachusetts.
Increased mobility of people in the U.S. has hastened the moths' spread, which is typically quite slow because the females do not fly.
Infested states use a combination of pesticides, natural predators and noninvasive methods, such as wrapping trees with burlap during egg-laying season, to reduce gypsy moth numbers.
Michigan has been dealing with gypsy moths for about 50 years, said Ken Rauscher, director of the Pesticide and Plant Pest Management Division of the Michigan Agriculture Department.
"Gypsy moth is a very significant forest pest because it has a very wide host range," Rauscher said.
The larva will eat the leaves of just about any hardwood tree, but prefer oaks. They also can damage sweet gum, birch, poplar and willow trees, Reid said.
While outbreaks haven't been as bad in Michigan in recent years, other states, including Wisconsin, West Virginia and Minnesota do targeted pesticide spraying during the moths' larval stage, when the insects do the most damage.
In the West, officials are more watchful for Asian gypsy moths, which can spread more rapidly because the females do fly. The biggest import danger there is via cargo ships from Asia.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.