By GERALD J. SCOTT
You don’t have to be a hunter, a fisherman, a hiker or a bird watcher to appreciate the outdoors. In fact, many people who prefer to keep themselves and nature on opposite sides of a pane of glass care very deeply about the environment.
Not surprisingly, those of us who think of the outdoors as an activity center and those who think of it as something to be observed from afar often disagree on the details of how, when, if and for what purposes humans should interject themselves into nature.
Even so, both sides agree that the price of environmental liberty includes keeping certain entities – industry, agriculture and government, to name a few of the usual suspects – under constant vigilance.
Ironically, precious few people realize that the acts of one individual, whether deliberate or inadvertent, can help create or spread an environmental disaster every bit the equal of industrial air pollution, agricultural chemical run-off or even misguided government programs.
For the benefit of those who think I’m being overly dramatic, near the dawn of the 20th century, Hermann Merkel, who, by the way, was a college-educated forester, planted several Asian chestnut trees in what is now the Bronx Zoo. Blight (an airborne fungus) was first observed in these trees in 1904. By 1906, 98 percent of them were dead and within a few decades, so were an estimated 3 billion American chestnuts.
Thus was a single man able to eliminate what for centuries had been the most prolific and most valuable hardwood tree east of the Mississippi River. Scientists in the United States and Canada are experimenting with the few remaining mature American chestnuts to develop a blight resistant strain. To date, progress has been minimal.
But as ecologically significant as introduced insect pests and plant diseases have been in the past, a 21st century immigrant is poised to eclipse them all in terms of economic impact. An Asian stowaway in wooden cargo crates, the emerald ash borer, was first discovered in Michigan in 2002. These inch-long, metallic green beetles – or more correctly, their larvae – have already killed millions of ash trees in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Ontario.
Emerald ash borers have been documented around Lake Wappappello and in several other locations in Missouri. This is where you and I come in. We couldn’t become Hermann Merkels even if we wanted to; the time is long past for that. Even so, the choices we make regarding the firewood we use both at home and in campgrounds will have a significant impact in the battle to contain this voracious pest.
The seemingly innocent act of transporting firewood for use in your fireplace or on your next camping trip is a case in point. Even wood from healthy trees can harbor destructive insects or their eggs. However, since from some – but, thankfully, by no means all – woodlot owners’ perspectives, culling inferior or diseased trees for sale as firewood is a sound management technique.
As a result, the wood you bought from a stranger, because he was $10 a cord cheaper than the local supplier you’ve always used, could become terribly expensive for miles around.
Fortunately, if the wood was purchased locally, it’s likely that the insects hiding in it are already an established part of the area’s ecosystem and, therefore, are unlikely to present a serious problem. Conversely, firewood – including a single bundle left over from a vacation’s final campfire – that’s been imported from another state or even from another part of Missouri can be the spark that ignites a new emerald ash borer outbreak.
Insects aren’t the only creatures with the potential to allow a single person to start an irreversible ecological plague. The zebra mussel is proof positive of that. This handsome, thumb-sized “clam” is so prolific that it can rapidly form colonies dense enough to block city water intakes and strain virtually all of the nutrients from the water it inhabits.
Since its larvae travel in bilge water, it’s probably impossible to keep zebra mussels out of the nation’s commercially navigable waterways. On the other hand, due diligence on the part of private boat owners may keep the obnoxious critter out of our smaller lakes and inland waters.
In fairness to Hermann Merkel, I’ll close by noting that his was far from the only case of trained professionals who opened Pandora’s Box and later lamented, “It seemed like such a good idea at the time.”
The English sparrow, the starling, several species of carp and a host of plants are examples that come readily to mind.