Loss of federal aid may foil state's fight to contain destructive timber, nursery disease
By MITCH LIES
BROOKINGS, Ore. -- In 2001, U.S. Forest Service plant pathologist Ellen Goheen took to the air to see if sudden oak death was in Oregon.
The disease, which in two years can kill an otherwise healthy oak tree, earlier that year was identified as the causal agent killing huge swaths of oak trees in northern California.
The leading edge of the infestation was more than 100 miles from the Oregon-California border, but Goheen thought it possible that sudden oak death had entered Curry County.
Moments after starting her aerial survey, Goheen's suspicions were realized.
"The 'oh, shoot' factor was pretty high," she said.
Her discovery set off what has become a decade-long, $10 million battle with the fungal disease that threatens much of the West's timber and nursery industries.
Scientists originally hoped to eradicate it from Oregon's forests.
"Our vision in 2001 was we'd do this for three years and be done," Oregon Department of Forestry plant pathologist Alan Kanaskie said.
That plan has long since been abandoned.
Today, federal, state and commercial foresters accept that sudden oak death is a fixture in the forests of Oregon's southernmost coastal county.
Their management strategy today involves keeping the disease from spreading outside a quarantine area that has grown from 9 square miles in 2001 to 162 square miles today.
Sudden oak death, caused by the Phytophthora ramorum fungus, spreads when its spores are carried by wind or splashed by rain from an infected oak tree to another susceptible tree or bush.
A broad range of hosts -- more than 100 species, including many common to Oregon forests, such as Douglas-fir -- allows it to spread rapidly and increases the complexity of managing it.
The current management strategy involves removing all host plants within a 300-foot radius of an infected tree.
In Oregon, scientists typically find about 70 new infected sites each year -- all within the quarantine area.
Host plants within the 300-foot radius are felled and burned on site. Foresters also treat stumps of infected trees with herbicides to prevent sprouting, and sweep and burn debris from the forest floor of treatment sites.
The cost -- running about $2 million a year in recent years -- is high, but, according to an Oregon State University study, better than the alternatives.
In the study, OSU researchers gauged the costs of three options: One involved doing nothing, or letting the disease spread on its own accord. A second involved containing the disease, essentially what the state is doing today. A third involved eradicating it.
According to the study, the first option -- taking no action -- would cost the state between $150 million and $1.2 billion over 20 years due to expanding quarantines and treatment costs to ship products out of quarantine areas.
Containing the disease at a cost of $2 million a year would save the state $122 million to $1.2 billion in losses over the 20 year period, according to the study.
Eradicating the disease would cost $7 million to $10 million a year for five years, and save the state between $119 million and $1.2 billion over 20 years.
The costs and savings in the study vary widely because of market uncertainties, Oregon Department of Agriculture Plant Division Administrator Dan Hilburn said.
"One thing these numbers tell you is there is a lot of uncertainty about what would happen in markets," he said.
Also, Hilburn said, there is no guarantee the state could eradicate the disease even if it tried.
In California the disease has largely been left to spread on its own accord in suburban and forest settings. As a result, sudden oak death has killed hundreds of thousands of oak trees in 14 coastal counties, from Humboldt County in the north to Monterey County in the south.
Scientists can only speculate how the disease moved from California to Oregon. Despite considerable scouting, they have not found the disease in California's northernmost coastal county, Del Norte, and have been unable to connect it geographically with Curry County.
One theory is infected tissue entered Oregon on droppings from migratory birds.
Regardless of how it got here, state and federal officials are comfortable with their current containment strategy.
As the OSU study suggests, letting sudden oak death go unchecked ultimately will drive up logging costs in Oregon forests.
South Coast Lumber, a Brookings lumber company, owns about 30,000 acres within the Oregon quarantine zone. The company's timber manager, Virgil Frazier, said the quarantine costs South Coast between 10 and 40 percent of the value of timber in the quarantine zone due to higher harvest costs, direct loss of timber value and regulatory costs associated with trying to move uninfected product out of the zone.
Homeowners with infected trees in the quarantine zone are required to either remove the trees on their own or let the state do it.
The disease also costs the Oregon nursery industry hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in increased management costs. Nurseries that test positive for the disease lose significantly.
"Any time a nursery fails (a test), a lot of material gets destroyed," Hilburn said. "And there are other costs that are hard to quantify.
"Inevitably, a lot of their customers are not happy," he said.
Ten nurseries tested positive this year under an ODA testing program that tested plants from more than 600 nurseries.
Under Oregon's nursery program, all nurseries with plants that can host sudden oak death must be certified as disease free before they can ship those plants out of state.
Sudden oak death first was discovered in an Oregon nursery in 2003. It has been found in several dozen nurseries since.
The ODA currently funds about a third of the state's $1.25 million sudden oak death nursery program. Federal funds cover the remainder of the costs.
Here again, the money appears well spent, according to the OSU study, which found that taking no action in nurseries would have cost the industry $65 million to $650 million in losses over 20 years.
Conversely, a strategy involving containment -- the current state strategy -- saves the industry between $37 million and $624 million over 20 years.
State and federal scientists have patched together funding sources over the years to keep the forest and nursery sudden oak death containment programs in operation. But the funding sources are in danger of dissolving in coming months.
Hilburn has heard from officials within USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that several other plant health issues are expected to compete for federal nursery funds in the upcoming fiscal year. The federal stimulus money that is paying for much of the containment effort in Curry County forests will be depleted by this time next year, putting the future of that program in jeopardy as well.
"We can see far enough into the future that we can keep the programs going up until next fall," Hilburn said.
"After that, there is no obvious source of keeping programs going," Hilburn said. "Then it all gets very cloudy."