Flames from the Rim Fire consume trees on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California.

Flames from the Rim Fire consume trees on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California.

The emerald ash borer is a small insect doing a massive amount of damage. Tree experts say it will eventually kill nearly all of this country’s ash trees, and there’s not much that can be done to stop it. The devastation spread by the emerald ash borer is just one of many threats to the health and future of the nation’s trees and forests. Other kinds of insects, diseases, climate change and mismanaged fire areas are chief among the challenges. We discuss how our forests are changing and current efforts in forests and on city streets to secure the future of our trees.


  • Eric Rutkow Attorney and historian; author of "American Canopy."
  • Lydia Scott Community trees program manager, The Morton Arboretum
  • Tom Tidwell Chief, US Forest Service, USDA
  • Bill Toomey Director, forest health program, The Nature Conservancy


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The tiny emerald ash borer is steadily eating its way through North America's ash trees. It's not the first and certainly won't be the last invasive insect to wreak havoc on American trees. Joining me to talk about current threats to the health of our forests and efforts to protect the future of our trees: Tom Tidwell of the U.S. Forest Service, Bill Toomey of The Nature Conservancy, Eric Rutkow, historian and author of "American Canopy," and, joining us from a studio at WBEZ in Chicago, Lydia Scott of The Morton Arboretum.

  • 11:07:42

    MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.

  • 11:08:02

    MR. TOM TIDWELLThank you.

  • 11:08:03

    MR. BILL TOOMEYThank you, Diane. Great to be here.

  • 11:08:04

    MR. ERIC RUTKOWDiane, thank you. It's great to be here today to talk about this.

  • 11:08:06

    MS. LYDIA SCOTTThank you, Diane.

  • 11:08:07

    REHMTom Tidwell, tell us about the emerald ash borer. Where'd it come from? And where has it spread?

  • 11:08:18

    TIDWELLWell, the emerald ash borer came from one of the Asian Islands about 30 years ago. And in all likelihood, it came through some import of some wood products that came into this country. And so it'd been around for about 30 years. And then what happened, about 10 years ago, is we started to see kind of the climate change and no longer having the really cold early winters.

  • 11:08:40

    TIDWELLThe emerald ash borers really expanded up through throughout the Eastern United States and through the Midwest and now into Canada. The thing that's happening is that if we can't find some way to control this to really slow it down, there's a good likelihood we're going to lose the ash component out of our Eastern and Midwestern forests.

  • 11:09:01

    REHMBill, would you agree that we're going to lose these ash trees?

  • 11:09:09

    TOOMEYThis is a very, very destructive pest. And when a pest comes in from another country, it finds itself trees that are similar to ones in its originating country. And as Tom indicated, the emerald ash borer, while not a pest in its original countries, found a country that supports 16 different species of ash and has really established itself. And while it spreads naturally, people are inadvertently spreading it around the country through movement of wood.

  • 11:09:47

    TOOMEYSo The Nature Conservancy has taken kind of a four-pronged approach in helping to address this issue. One is preventing new pests from getting into the country, and we can talk about how we're doing that, detecting these pests as early as possible to give us as much time as we can to understand the problem and react accordingly, three, slowing the spread of these pests. While they do move naturally, people, again, are inadvertently moving them around on raw wood.

  • 11:10:14


  • 11:10:16

    TOOMEYAnd we have a national Don't Move Firewood program that tries to keep people from inadvertently spreading the wood around.

  • 11:10:23


  • 11:10:24

    TOOMEYAnd, lastly, restoring the areas that have been impacted by this pest through urban forestry -- cities have taken the brunt of the damage on this one. Streets, street trees in a lot of these Midwestern and Northeastern states are lined with beautiful ash. And they're very susceptible to this pest.

  • 11:10:46

    REHMAnd to you, Lydia Scott, on the city effort, I mean, are cities going to lose a great many of their ash trees or indeed all of them? Lydia, can you hear me? I'm afraid she's not hearing me right now. So let me turn to you, Eric Rutkow. This is not the first pest we've seen that has really invaded a species of tree.

  • 11:11:27

    RUTKOWIt's certainly not the first. And no matter how destructive it is, it probably can't actually be the worst because chestnut blight which ravaged the forests in the early and mid-part of the 20th century took out the most common Eastern hardwood tree that we had. So in terms of actual impact on the forest and impact on the landscape, we've experienced some profoundly effective pest over the years. That one wasn't actually an insect. That's just a different disease, a fungal disease.

  • 11:11:58

    RUTKOWAnd then of course most Americans, I think, still can remember the idea of Dutch elm disease. And Dutch elm disease of course was the ravage of city streets and suburbs. So what we're seeing with the ash borer now is in some ways a similar set of circumstances and sort of a repeat of what we've already gone through. And as bad as it's going to be, the main difference is that we used to plant elm trees in every city, unbroken lines, along avenues. It's every street is named Elm Street.

  • 11:12:23

    REHMExactly. Exactly.

  • 11:12:26

    RUTKOWThere aren't as many Ash Streets in America.

  • 11:12:28

    REHMDo you want to comment, Tom Tidwell?

  • 11:12:32

    TIDWELLWell, the only thing I'd like to just add to that is that, you know, the point that Eric was making about having diversity of species is important in our urban settings, just like it is in our natural forests, in our nation's forests. And that's some of the things as we talk about finding ways to prevent and slow the spread.

  • 11:12:51

    TIDWELLThis is the reality that we're facing, is that we need to have more resiliency in our urban forest, just like we do in our national forests. And one way to do that is to have a mix of species and, at the same time, and to continue our research to be able to provide some ways to prevent, whether it's the emerald ash borer or the next species that's probably coming in through our ports.

  • 11:13:13

    REHMLydia, I wonder if you can hear me now. I'm afraid we've got a problem with WBEZ in Chicago. We'll try to restore that...

  • 11:13:28

    SCOTTI can hear you, Diane. Can you hear me?

  • 11:13:29

    REHM...microphone as soon as we can. So if we're talking about a problem with ash trees not only in the woods but in cities, Eric Rutkow, what can be done to indeed slow the process? Or is it beyond our control at this point?

  • 11:13:55

    RUTKOWRight. So, sir, let me build on this last comment because this idea of biodiversity in the urban forest that we need...

  • 11:14:00

    SCOTTHello. Hello? Hello?

  • 11:14:01

    RUTKOW...that we need different types of trees...

  • 11:14:02


  • 11:14:04

    RUTKOW...and the more variety that we have, the more resilient that canopy is going to be -- is essential, one, and then there's the controlling the pest itself. And so this varies depending on the tree species involved and the type of pest involved. In terms of the actual potential of controlling ash borer, I mean, I would probably turn to the chief of the Forest Service before I would speculate on where we're going on that front.

  • 11:14:26

    REHMWhere are we going, Tom Tidwell?

  • 11:14:29

    TIDWELLWell, we've been working with our partners in the states and the cities and also with our partners at AFUS (sp?) and working together with the U.S. Forest Service to do a couple things. And that's, one, is to first of all try to stop the spread. And so we've done some things that basically come in and actually clear out areas of ash, so it's more difficult for the emerald ash borer to keep spreading to the North. In addition to that, our research scientists have been having some success developing and working with a parasitic wasp from Asia that they've been releasing into, you know, the ash trees. And so far we're having some success with that, but...

  • 11:15:07

    REHMOK. But now you've got me worried. Once you've released a parasitic wasp, what are the consequences of that long term?

  • 11:15:19

    TIDWELLWell, our scientists go to great lengths to make sure that before we ever, ever introduce a new species that we're very careful. And we're done enough research and enough studies to know that it's going to be very host-specific and so that it will never eliminate, like, the emerald ash borer. But what it could do -- it could slow down the spread. So we're very, very careful to make sure that this is going to be very specific just to the emerald ash borer.

  • 11:15:48

    REHMBill Toomey, do you have any comments on that?

  • 11:15:51

    TOOMEYYeah. I'd love to jump in here. The Nature Conservancy is very concerned about the health of our nation's forests. And while we are talking about a specific pest, the emerald ash borer, that's not the only threat that we have to our forests. And maybe we can talk a little bit more about what some of those other challenges are.

  • 11:16:08

    REHMBut before you do...

  • 11:16:10


  • 11:16:10

    REHM...I'm just wondering what your reaction is to the release of this kind of specific wasp to address the ash borer.

  • 11:16:23

    TOOMEYYeah. And I think what Tom is saying is that the pest is at a point where we need to come up with a variety of management options to try and control and contain and minimize the impact that this pest is -- has the potential to have on our trees and forests.

  • 11:16:40

    REHMLydia, do you want to jump in here?

  • 11:16:48


  • 11:16:48

    REHMI am so sorry, Lydia. We are really having problems with your microphone. And we'll just have to let that go. Go ahead, Eric.

  • 11:17:03

    RUTKOWSo, Diane, on this front, bringing in other species to control in a sort of a -- another invasive is not a new technique by any measure. And like anything, it's sort of risky. So we're often looking at this in terms of, what are the other options? One option that we used to do a lot would be massive spraying of chemicals and pesticides.

  • 11:17:19

    RUTKOWA targeted approach using an insect that's co-evolved with that other one that is its natural predator can work. And we actually -- this was done successfully in California in the late 19th century with orange trees. So it's not to say that in any given instance one can say this is a good idea or a bad idea without looking at the science. But it's certainly not a new process in sort of dealing with these issues, just like invasive pests are nothing new either.

  • 11:17:43

    REHMTom Tidwell.

  • 11:17:45

    TIDWELLWell, once again, it's just one of the things that we're trying to slow down the spread of this. And it's going to take a combination of probably doing what we can to be able to slow the spread and some ways of actually coming out and harvesting ash on front of this, so that just is more difficult for the species to continue to spread potentially with these bio-control.

  • 11:18:07

    TIDWELLAnd then also, we're going to continue to, you know, look for other natural prey or natural enemies of the emerald ash borer. The emerald ash borer where it exists out in the Asian Islands, it co-exists with the ash trees there. And so it doesn't have the detrimental effect that we've been having in this country. And so we're optimistic that our scientists will be able to find a way to really slow this down.

  • 11:18:36

    REHMTom Tidwell, he's chief of the U.S. Forest Service at the USDA. Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We've been talking about the invasive ash borer that is eating its way through North America's ash trees, but that is not the only invasive species that is affecting our -- not only our forests, but our city trees as well. Eric Rutkow, you say that the early 1900s was another period of this kind of invasive species entering the country.

  • 11:20:43

    RUTKOWSo it helps when -- to -- with some of this to understand if we take a much longer view to contextualize it. At the moment we're in a new era of globalization. So when you look at what's going on with the effect that these invasives are having on the forests, one factor is the way the climate change is affecting winters and we've discussed that a little bit.

  • 11:21:01

    RUTKOWThe other one is globalization. The more there is a movement of goods and the less regulated that is, the more you're going to have exposure at entry points -- primarily, in the U.S. we're talking about ports -- for all sorts of things, from wood products to actual living plants to a whole host of things, including secondary products. Well, if you go back 100 years there was another period of globalization that looks sort of similar.

  • 11:21:22

    RUTKOWIt starts in sort of the 1870s and keeps on going. And then World War I slows things down, and then the Great Depression really sort of puts an end to that era. And we begin embarking on that anew in the 1980s. So part of what we're seeing right now is this invasive -- and the numbers are objectively going upward. We're finding more invasives more frequently than we had previously, the last 30 years.

  • 11:21:45

    RUTKOWAgain, this is sort of -- they're correlations. It's hard to exactly say this is right, but the evidence is pretty strong that part of what's going on is there's a lot of global commerce, it's not regulated as aggressively as it needs to be and we're seeing things that we saw 100 years ago on a somewhat slower scale. But that's, again, when we got chestnut blight, which was coming from Asia as well.

  • 11:22:04

    REHMWhat about that, Bill Toomey?

  • 11:22:07

    TOOMEYNo. Eric is exactly right. It's the increase of global trade. These pests are coming in on wood packaging material. The borer, which is, you know, emerald ash borer, Asian long-horned beetle, the wood-boring tree pests are getting in on wood packaging material. And that is increasing as we bring more goods into this country. And they're also coming in on live plant material. So those…

  • 11:22:30

    REHMTom Tidwell, how extensive is the inspection process when these kinds of materials do cross borders, do come into our country?

  • 11:22:45

    TIDWELLWell, this isn't an area of my expertise, but I do know that folks do spend a lot of time in our ports to be able to check, especially where we know that there's a problem insect that's coming in from -- if there's a load coming in from a certain part of the country, then there at the ports they are, you know, taking time to really check those loads.

  • 11:23:06

    TIDWELLThe problem with this is that some of the insects, like emerald ash borer, could be inside a wood pallet and unless you're going through every piece of wood and x-raying it or something, it's very, very difficult to be able to, you know, find that. The other thing that we're doing is working with our trade partners. So that they're taking steps on their end to make sure that if there's a problem there that they're, you know, maybe using a different species of wood that could prevent this type of insect and disease from coming into the country.

  • 11:23:37

    TIDWELLSo it takes work, not only our ports, but we also need to continue to be working with our partners so that, you know, they don't accidentally bring something in. And at the same time, we need to be doing the same thing here in the United States to make sure that we're not exporting one of our pests.

  • 11:23:52

    REHMI gather there's also a great deal of concern about the hemlock tree. Is that correct, Bill?

  • 11:24:01

    TOOMEYYes. Now, unfortunately there are a number of bad actors in the country right now. Hemlock woolly adelgid, Asian long-horned beetle, the emerald ash borer, those are the big three -- well, there are others. That Nature Conservancy, Forest Service, USDA APHIS and partners are really focusing most of our time and attention on the major tree pests, the ones that can really take out trees across their entire range. While there are many, many other pests that affect trees in different ways, ones that can take out and kill trees at a very large scale…

  • 11:24:34

    REHMAnd what would happen, Eric, if we were to lose our hemlocks?

  • 11:24:43

    RUTKOWWe've actually lost a fair number of hemlocks across the East. I mean a lot of that's happened in the past several -- I mean, that goes back a while. You know, it depends. Like every tree, hemlock, at one time, was the most important tree we had for tanning leather. So if this was the 19th century, it would have had a radical impact on the economy. Now, we have a more diversified, globalized economy so economically I think it'd be hard for me to pinpoint exactly where, you know, an average person might see it.

  • 11:25:09

    RUTKOWIn terms of landscapes, we still have them all over. And then the most important issue, I think, is an ecosystem health question. It's never really a long-term benefit for an ecosystem to be losing part of its diversity. It's one thing if this is a process that plays out in sort of a slow scale, what we think of as geographic or geologic time. But it's never really a good idea when this happens in a matter of 10, 15 years.

  • 11:25:31

    REHMTom Tidwell?

  • 11:25:32

    TIDWELLWell, just to add to that, it's -- whenever we lose some of the diversity in a forest -- and whether it's an urban forest or in our national forests -- we do lose some of the resiliency, that natural resistance to be able to deal with stresses. And so that's a thing that, you know, we need to be, you know, concerned about. And yes, that -- over time species will, you know, sometimes drop out of the ecosystem.

  • 11:25:56

    TIDWELLBut when they are -- when the change is caused, you know, by some type of a foreign pest or something, that's not a natural situation. And so the other part of it is what's going to replace the ash trees?

  • 11:26:09


  • 11:26:09

    TIDWELLWhat's going to replace the, you know, the hemlocks. Now, we watched this -- what happened in this country with the chestnut. When we lost the American chestnut and we saw how our forests changed. And so this isn't anything new, but what's really, I think, what we need to focus on, is the importance of maintaining the diversity of species. And then, in second, in addition to what we're dealing with today, is to recognize that this is a growing problem.

  • 11:26:36

    TIDWELLAnd we need to continue to make the investment and research to make sure that we are well positioned. And then continue to work with our trade partners so that we're doing everything we can to prevent, you know, new species from coming into the United States.

  • 11:26:51

    REHMWhat about what's happening in the West? You've got the mountain pine beetle. What's happening in Colorado and nearby states, Eric?

  • 11:27:02

    RUTKOWUtter devastation. I spent…

  • 11:27:03

    REHMUtter devastation?

  • 11:27:05

    RUTKOWWell, in place -- in parts of it. I mean, like, forests are enormous and I don't want to become too alarmist, but as someone who's spent a few months last summer in Colorado and Wyoming, it's not uncommon to come across stands that stretch for miles where every pine tree is dead. And that's, again, it's a combination of a whole number of factors. There's, I mean, that's not a new pest.

  • 11:27:26

    RUTKOWThat's a sort of longer cyclical story where there's to a certain extent a perfect storm of forest management practices that, in conjunction with changes in climate patterns and a drought that's been hitting and the sort of nature of the insect itself has produced just a horrific outcome at that moment that's having huge impacts. And you can see this in a lot of the national forests and parks.

  • 11:27:49

    RUTKOWAnd I think anyone that's been out camping in the West -- in that part of the West in the last several years would certainly notice it. And it's certainly not the only one. I mean, you know, pine blister rust is still sort of on the rise in large parts of the West. And that's, interestingly enough, a pest that was fully controlled in the eastern United States in the '30s. It's actually a -- there's a lot of them. Yeah, there's a lot of these stories. Yeah, that's another one. And that was…

  • 11:28:13


  • 11:28:14

    RUTKOW…a Great Depression story, in the East, a successful one.

  • 11:28:17

    REHMBut, I mean, apparently Colorado now has like four million acres of dead trees. Now, is that from fire? Is it from insects? Is it from drought? What is it?

  • 11:28:35

    TIDWELLWell, the majority of the trees that have died in Colorado have been from the mountain pine beetle over the last decade. And I need to stress that this is a natural pest. And we've always had bark beetle infestations, whether they're mountain pine beetle or other bark beetles. But what's happened this time that's been so different is the scale of the infestation has gone way beyond anything that we've seen, at least in our lifetimes, by far.

  • 11:29:04

    TIDWELLAnd it's really been the problem, is that we've -- it's been a long time since we've had a really cold winter, especially early on. That's what normally helps control the bark beetle numbers, the beetles. If the beetles can bore into those trees and we don't get any cold weather until like January or February, they're pretty well insulated and they're going to survive. So in the past…

  • 11:29:26

    REHMSo we're talking about climate change now.

  • 11:29:29

    TIDWELLWe are.

  • 11:29:31

    REHMHow do you feel about that, Bill Toomey? To what extent is climate change playing a role here?

  • 11:29:40

    TOOMEYI think it's definitely playing a role. And what we're talking about is tree's ability to respond to environmental stresses. And it's a complicated system and it's usually not one particular thing. It's a series of things in combination that result in some of the impacts that we're seeing right now, at the scale at which we're seeing them.

  • 11:29:59

    REHMEric, how do you see climate change playing a role here?

  • 11:30:05

    RUTKOWI think when we talk long-term, climate change is certainly the biggest issue. But when we focus in on anything specific, if it's the mountain pine beetle or really any other issue we've been discussing, there are more issues at play. There's no question about that. And they range from things like forest management to how much -- I mean, one of the issues we haven't talked about and sort of what the big sticking point for me is, I think most people in this country feel that forests are an issue that was resolved 100 years ago.

  • 11:30:32

    RUTKOWThat we sort of figured it out. And that we don't have to think about it anymore. We have to think about oil as a matter in our economy. We have to think about maybe forests and rain forests in other places. But for sort of most people in their consciousness, the forests were -- I don't know. They seem to think maybe Teddy Roosevelt figured it out or something. And the reality is that there have been lots of decisions made along the way, but we, as a population, are completely disconnected from this question.

  • 11:30:58

    REHMTalk about the decisions that were made.

  • 11:31:02

    RUTKOWOh, well, sure. I mean, before the late 19th century there's very little active management or active protection of any forest lines in the United States, outside of certain local areas connected to towns sometimes. Then in the late 19th century you start getting some state parks. The Adirondacks are really the first big state park that's protecting forest land as water shed protection, appreciating that these trees have a special value.

  • 11:31:26

    RUTKOWSo it's different than something like Central Park, which is formed in the middle of the Civil War. And then in the early 20th century, you have the birth of the Forest Service, which the Forest Service is formally created in 1905 and it has roots that go back a couple decades earlier. And along with that, Teddy Roosevelt expands the system of national forests, that's around 40 million acres when he shows up, to close 200 million acres, which is about a tenth of the continental United States, by the time some western congressman sort of stop him from doing that.

  • 11:31:56

    RUTKOWAnd then you have to add on top of that, there's animal lands, there have been lands that are preserved for animal protection, there have been the national park land that are protected, there's wilderness, we have a very complicated patchwork of land protection in this country.

  • 11:32:09

    REHMAnd what surprises me, as I learned about trees, is the percentage of U.S. forests that are actually in private hands.

  • 11:32:24

    TIDWELLYes, Diane. We're very fortunate in this country to have this matrix of land ownership. And a lot of folks talk about the importance of the national forests that make up about 20 percent of our forested landscape. But the majority of our forested landscape is private land. Over 50 percent is in private ownership. And so when we talk about the future of forests in this country, we've got to realize that, yes, there's a significant amount that's in public ownership, whether federal, state, country or local.

  • 11:32:55

    TIDWELLBut we get a lot of benefits off of our private forests. And when I think about the forests that are most threatened in this country, it's really our private forests. When I think about where we're going to be 10, 20, 30 years from now, I'm confident we're going to still have the land base we have in our public lands, but I question, I worry about how much of our private forested lands will still be forested.

  • 11:33:18

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And tell me why you are so worried about those forests in private hands.

  • 11:33:31

    TIDWELLWell, because that -- it's the level of development that even continues today with our current economy that when there is an opportunity to, you know, when it's just to make more money by developing your land, it's difficult for private land owners to, you know, keep their land forested. And so there's pressure from development. There's the other pressure of selling off the land, for folks that want to own 200, 300, 400 acres of forests.

  • 11:33:58

    TIDWELLThey build their home there, but then they're not managing. They're not caring for that -- those hundreds of acres. And so they enjoy the trees while they're there, but then it's a matter of time before it's either insect or disease that comes into those areas. And we start to lose that forested landscape.

  • 11:34:14

    REHMSo from your research, Eric, is what Tom is saying accurate? Are private landowners taking worse care of privately owned forests than the federal government is? Who's doing a better job of it?

  • 11:34:40

    RUTKOWI think the -- I -- you can see me squirming in my seat.

  • 11:34:43

    REHMYeah, I can.

  • 11:34:45

    RUTKOWFirst of all, there's -- as Tom's sort of getting at, there's a lot of different types of private forest land when we say that. So private forest land is a category that includes everything from the biggest harvesters of commercial operations -- forest products operations, whether that's lumber, whether that's wood chips, whether that's…

  • 11:35:02

    REHMGetting ready to cut them down.

  • 11:35:04

    RUTKOWAnd those are commercial forests that are being utilized as commercial forests.

  • 11:35:07


  • 11:35:07

    RUTKOWAnd the ethics of that and how to go about that is a somewhat -- I mean, we can discuss it. And then there's -- and then there's sort of mid-sized landholders, who would like to manage their lands or think about it. And then there's people who have a couple acres sort of as part of their property and might not think about it at all. And all of these categories present different challenges.

  • 11:35:27

    RUTKOWAs far as getting private landowners involved, that story really starts to show up in the middle of the 20th century. FDR himself -- and you and I have talked about this at some point -- but FDR himself identified as tree planter. That was actually what he listed in his profession, as when he voted in 1944, in the middle of the war. And so FDR was a big player in this. And there was movement to create a tree farm system.

  • 11:35:54

    RUTKOWThis is about 65 years ago, now. And there's been evolution and ideas of private forest management and certification systems and citizen action. And so like anything there's some very good actors and people that do remarkable things. There's bad actors.

  • 11:36:07

    RUTKOWAnd part of it is also that the shift away from certain types of wood products has made it actually more challenging for a lot of small and midsize private forest holders to find markets for their wood the way that they'd like to be able to do it sustainably. We have a lot more sort of artisanal gardening and vegetables right now than we do artisanal wood products out there, from a sourcing perspective.

  • 11:36:30

    REHMBill Toomey?

  • 11:36:31

    TOOMEYI like where this is going. This is the bread and butter of the Nature Conservancy. You know we protected a lot of land over our last 60 years. And done that primarily by working with private landowners. So while there is a challenge with having forest land owned by millions of individuals who can make decisions on what to do on that property in their own way, it also creates a real opportunity. They have -- we all have a responsibility to manage our resources effectively and wisely.

  • 11:36:58

    REHMI fully agree, but does the public realize what's happening to our tree population? Is the public aware of the dangers from insects, from deforestation here in our own country? We talk about what's happened in other places, but I don't think we talk enough about what's happening right here. We'll take a short break. When we come back, time to open the phones and hear your comments. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking with three people. Tom Tidwell is chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Eric Rutkow is an attorney and historian, author of the book "American Canopy." Bill Toomey is director of the forest health program for The Nature Conservancy. And, as you can hear, we're talking about trees and forests. Not only forests but the trees you see, enjoy in your own garden, perhaps on the street, what's happening to them is really worrisome.

  • 11:40:47

    REHMWe're going to open the phones now. We're going to DeKalb, Ill. Hello, Travis, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:57

    TRAVISHi, Diane. Hi, Eric. Hi, Bill. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:41:00


  • 11:41:02

    TRAVISI have a -- I just bought a house and I have two ash trees on my property and both are (word?) right now. The canopies are quite thin. Lower in the tree it's quite thick, but the tops are thinning out pretty good. And I'm just wondering as a homeowner, what do I do? Should I -- I heard there's treatments. Is it too late already for my trees? Should I cut them down sooner than later to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer? So just looking for some guidance really on what I should do as a homeowner with the couple ash trees...

  • 11:41:33

    REHMAll good questions. Bill Toomey.

  • 11:41:36

    TOOMEYYeah, I think probably the best thing to do is to bring in a professional. Contact one of your licensed arborists and they can come in and take a look at the tree. What you're describing is suspect but it's hard to diagnose trees over the radio show here. So I would strongly recommend contacting a local arborist or someone from your cooperative extension service who can...

  • 11:41:59

    REHMTom Tidwell.

  • 11:42:01

    TIDWELLNo, I agree with what Bill stated. I think it's important to reach out to the professionals because there's lots of other things that could be going on with those trees. And so I would hate to see one take the tree out before they actually know they have a problem.

  • 11:42:13

    REHMAll right. To Ann in Dunedin (sp?), Fla. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:42:20

    ANNThank you for taking my call.

  • 11:42:22


  • 11:42:22

    ANNEven though I live in Florida now I used to live in Michigan. And over 30 years ago we had a huge ash tree in our backyard which started getting sick, as did many others in the area. This is in Canton, Mich. And soon they were saying it was the weather and all kinds of stuff. And it took about three years for the bark to start falling off. And you could see the tunnels underneath the bark. And that's when they decided it was emerald ash borer.

  • 11:42:50

    ANNIt seems like that -- if I'm -- I wanted to ask if that is actually the location that it started at because it seems like that's where it started. And then they started -- Michigan required the people not move firewood because they were afraid they were going to move the insects. And there was in that area a small manufacturer that was from Asia. And I was wondering, first of all, is that where it started? And second of all, is there anything besides not moving firewood to contain this? Because I was really surprised to find out that it was not contained to Michigan.

  • 11:43:27

    REHMAll right. Bill Toomey.

  • 11:43:29

    TOOMEYYeah, the exact location is a little bit hard to pin down because when they did find it, we realized that it had been in the country for longer than we had originally thought. And there are some other diseases that affect ash and produce some similar symptoms. The tunneling is very distinctive and is probably the ash borer.

  • 11:43:52

    TOOMEYBut when people take down a tree that is dead, they have a few choices to make. And by burning your wood locally, you know, using your firewood locally is certainly acceptable. It's the problem arises, Ann, when people take the wood and move it to different places within the state or even outside the state and they leave it there. They don't burn it completely when they bring it somewhere else.

  • 11:44:17

    TOOMEYSo we've really latched onto a public campaign Don't Move Firewood, which you mentioned. there are very simple things that we can do to keep from spreading these pests around inadvertently.

  • 11:44:29

    REHMAll right. Here is an email from Michael. "I live in -- or I am from Toronto, Canada." He says, "My neighborhood is eastern Toronto has been devastated by the ash borer. Eighty percent of trees in our local park are ash. Our park was clear cut earlier this year almost bringing me to tears. Fifty years of tree growth almost fully wiped out. One thing learned from this is forest diversity and this is what the city is promoting now," Tom Tidwell.

  • 11:45:15

    TIDWELLWell, I'm sorry to hear about that situation in Toronto but, you know, the point that he's making and that the city's picked up on is to have that diversity of species, you know, in our urban forests which is just as important as in our national forests throughout the country. Because it does allow for the situation when we do get either, you know, a certain pest into a forest, that it may have devastating impacts on one species. But at least you can keep the forested canopy if you have that multiple or mixed species.

  • 11:45:46

    REHMTo Jordan in Jacksonville, Fla. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:45:52

    JORDANHi, Diane. How you doing today?

  • 11:45:54

    REHMI'm good, thanks.

  • 11:45:56

    JORDANHey, I just wanted to call in and first tell you that I think the group you guys have on there today is a really good group. And so far I really agree with what they've been saying. Myself, I work in between the public and private sector just about every day for a smaller timber company here outside of Jacksonville, Fla.

  • 11:46:12

    JORDANLike they said before, with the most land being in private ownership, that is something I think a lot of people don't realize. And the only time it really impacts them is when they see a harvest or something going on down the street from their house or, you know, they're out to work every day they see some trees need cut down. And that's kind of where they get a little bit of questions from and getting inquisitive about the source and such.

  • 11:46:36

    JORDANBut, I mean, this is stuff that, you know, there is a big industry that revolves around what we do with, like I said, the public sector and the private sector. And it's just really good, you know. I almost jumped out of my truck there for a second whenever I heard the talk on trees and forests today. So I was just excited to see you got that going on today.

  • 11:46:53

    REHMGood. I'm glad you called in. Tom Tidwell.

  • 11:46:59

    TIDWELLWell, thank you for calling in and thank you for making that point about, you know, our private forests. You know, it's essential that we find ways to -- so that private landowners, private companies, it can be economically viable for them to maintain the forested landscapes, forested. And that's one of the things we're continuing to, you know, work with the industry and working with small wood lot owners is to find ways to increase that economic viability.

  • 11:47:26

    TIDWELLAnd whether it's developing new products that are forest products labs so that we can make -- create new markets expanding the use of wood, whether it's in our homes or now we're working to increase using wood in commercial buildings. But it's essential that we find, you know, be able to maintain and expand markets because otherwise it's going to be really difficult for private landowners to be able to manage their forested lands.

  • 11:47:51

    REHMHere's an email from Michael who says, "It seems the financial impact of major wildfires and the need to take funding from other areas of the forest services' budget is reducing their ability to manage forests and reduce risks from insects, diseases, climate change, etcetera. What can we do to put more emphasis on funding to prevent these challenges instead of always reacting after devastation from fire or insect outbreaks." Would you agree, Eric, that funding is being shifted?

  • 11:48:42

    RUTKOWWell, there's no question that the amount of money that some of these catastrophic fires have been requiring just attempt to contain them has been having an impact on, as I understand -- I'm sort of getting this as a layman reading this in sort of the press. But that does certainly seem to be the case.

  • 11:48:57

    RUTKOWBut what I'd like to sort of build on from that point is that, you know, this is a question that's really a question of leadership. And leadership at the very, very top which is to say that if you look at this story historically, if you really take a long view on this, most of the major initiatives -- and there's an underlying core of grassroots activism and committed citizenry. But most of the big moments involve an executive getting excited about it, involve an actual president getting onboard.

  • 11:49:30

    RUTKOWWe see this with Teddy Roosevelt. We see this with Franklin Roosevelt. Kennedy was quite interested in forest protection. It's unclear how far he would've gone but his assassination -- because it was on his agenda -- his assassination was actually sort of part of the final push toward getting the Wilderness Act.

  • 11:49:47

    RUTKOWSo we've often seen this at the highest levels and it's been quite a long time. You may remember in the early '90s that Bill Clinton had the famous forest summit to discuss the spotted owl right after he had become president. And other than some big issues with the first President Bush -- or second Bush to talk about putting more roads into some of the national forests, we really haven't had an executive for a long time who got excited, who made this a top line agenda, puts it in the State of the Union, says this is an issue we all need to talk about.

  • 11:50:15

    REHMThat must be frustrating, Tom Tidwell.

  • 11:50:19

    TIDWELLWell, you know, today, though, we do have that support. We have the support from President Obama. We have the support from Secretary Vilsack to be able to not only address the funding issue that has had impacts on our ability to be able to reduce hazardous fuels around our communities and restore our forests.

  • 11:50:37

    TIDWELLBut in addition to fixing the suppression funding problem, there also is a recognition that we need to do more work. We need to restore more acres of our forests and reduce more of the hazardous fields around the communities so that when we do have a fire, and we will have fires, they'll burn at a lower severity. And so they're easier for the firefighters to be able to suppress that fire. And it really reduces the threat.

  • 11:51:02

    TIDWELLSo I appreciate the comment from Eric about, you know, the leadership because we have that in place today. we also have a strong support in congress. There's bipartisan bicameral legislation. It's been introduced to address this funding problem, you know. And so I'm going to remain optimistic that we're going to be able to bring everything together and find a solution to this so that we can fix the funding problem. But then more importantly be able to increase our efforts to restore our nation's forests.

  • 11:51:33

    REHMTo John in Rochester Hills, Mich. You're on the air.

  • 11:51:39

    JOHNWell, thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:51:39


  • 11:51:40

    JOHNI travel around a lot Europe and Asia and I see the use of sycamore trees in urban environments, more so in Europe than here in the states. And I'm wondering if there's a particular reason why. I know there's a variety of sycamore that tends to be susceptible to a fungus. And just like your panel's thoughts on sycamores in general.

  • 11:51:59


  • 11:52:01

    RUTKOWYeah, so it's possible that sycamore's -- it's also possible it's a hybrid that's a London Plane, which is the most popular tree in Central Park and it's very common throughout -- it's got the patchy bark. It's very -- and you may be seeing sycamore or London Planes more likely all over, partly because -- well, that tree is a hybrid but trees from the United States and the other trees have been historically incredibly popular around the entire world.

  • 11:52:23

    RUTKOWThis country has some of the greatest tree resources if not the greatest tree resources of any country on earth. And consequently there have been efforts by other countries to import and nativize American trees going back to really the early years of the country. John Bartram who was sort of the first full time dedicated botanist in the United States -- or in the colonies. That was his job was really preparing seedlings to send to Europe to people like (word?) and scientists and aristocrats.

  • 11:52:50

    RUTKOWAnd so, you know, part of it is we're talking today as though there's the U.S. and we're the victim of these Asian pests. But we are one country in a globe. And so wherever you sort of drop the needle, this story looks the same way. You can find U.S. pests in other countries.

  • 11:53:03

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Noel in Aulander, N.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:53:15

    NOELYes, ma'am. One thing that goes on down here is when people, like, plant -- replant their trees after sending them all to the lumber company, all they replant is time because they want to see some kind of return on their investment in their own lifetime. And so they're not planting the sycamores or oaks or maples or ash or anything else. And I asked the local forest ranger about it and he said that his job was not to worry about diversity. His job was basically just to protect the pines. And I was just wondering if there are any states that are trying to legislate more diversity in the forests.

  • 11:53:49

    REHMInteresting. Tom Tidwell.

  • 11:53:52

    TIDWELLWell, you made my point about finding ways to increase the diversity. But at the same time we also have to recognize the economic reality for a private landowner. One of the things that there's a multistate effort working with the forest service and other federal agencies throughout the south is to bring back the long leaf pine, which is a native species which is much more resistant to wind. It's resistant to fire. It's also excellent wood.

  • 11:54:20

    TIDWELLThe problem with long leaf is it grows a little bit slower so it takes a little bit longer before it's ready to harvest. But the other benefit of this native species, it also provides excellent habitat for several listed species, that by expanding the long leaf forest throughout the south, we'll be able to create more habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker and for the gopher tortoise. So here's an example by expanding the use of one native species it provides for more diversity in the forests, more diverse habitat. And basically it provides a better, more resilient forest than some of the other pine species that we favored in the past.

  • 11:55:01


  • 11:55:02

    RUTKOWAnd just to sort of build on that, which I would agree with everything that Tom is saying, is that when we talk about biodiversity we don't necessarily mean that every acre of land with trees should have the most number of tree species in it. That's a misunderstanding of what biodiversity is. There are certain eco systems that naturally -- or naturally meaning sort of what was encountered several hundred years ago. I don't want to get too far into that rather whole...

  • 11:55:28

    RUTKOWBut long leaf pines can control -- they can be the primary and sometimes the only tree you're going to have for an enormous stand. And that's true out in the west too. In the northeast in particular, we have a bit of a jaded view because our forests tend to be diverse hardwood forests. So we're used to having that. Just like in the tropics there can be 400 tree species in an acre in extreme cases. But so sometimes what you actually would see normally and what you're trying to reproduce is a fairly uniform type of tree in a given climate.

  • 11:55:59

    REHMYou know, one thing we haven't talked about, Bill Toomey, are forest fires and the manner in which they're being handled. How does The Nature Conservancy approach that?

  • 11:56:13

    TOOMEYThat's a great question, Diane. And I think our approach is a comprehensive one. We're looking at restoring the health of our forests over the scale in which they exist. And in order to do that we have to do a number of things. We have to try and keep forests and forests, protect forests from being lost to other uses. And that was mentioned earlier. We need to restore fire to the landscape. We need to do that in a...

  • 11:56:41

    REHMWhat do you mean restore fire to the landscape?

  • 11:56:44

    TOOMEYThis was mentioned earlier. The Nature Conservancy and other partners are looking to do preventive fires. So we burn at a scale and in a manner that is controllable so that forests can -- forests that are adapted to fire can experience the fire in a controlled manner and minimize the danger when a wildfire...

  • 11:57:07

    REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it at that. Bill Toomey, Eric Rutkow, Tom Tidwell, thank you all so much.

  • 11:57:16

    TIDWELLThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:17

    TOOMEYThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:18

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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