Invasive Forest Pests:

Lessons Learned from Three Recent Infestations May Aid in Managing Future Efforts

GAO-06-353: Published: Apr 21, 2006. Publicly Released: May 22, 2006.

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Invasive forest pests have seriously harmed our environment and imposed significant costs upon our economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the lead agency for responding to forest pests. This report evaluates the federal response to three invasive forest pests--the Asian longhorned beetle, the emerald ash borer, and the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum (P. ramorum). Specifically, GAO describes (1) the status of efforts to eradicate these species, (2) the factors affecting the success of those efforts, (3) overall forest health monitoring programs, (4) coordination and communication of the three pest response efforts, and (5) USDA's use of panels of scientific experts to aid in the response efforts.

On the basis of the available evidence, it appears that the Asian longhorned beetle will be eradicated in the three states that have infestations, although funding reductions have extended the likely completion date. In contrast, the emerald ash borer and P. ramorum--the pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death--are likely to continue to infest and damage forest ecosystems in the Midwest and West Coast, respectively, despite efforts to control them. The success of the federal responses to these infestations has been affected by several factors. First, the unique biological characteristics of each species greatly influenced the ability to effectively control them. Second, several years elapsed between each pest's arrival and its discovery, thereby giving it time to become established in the environment before control programs began. This situation cannot be fixed retroactively, but it could be avoided in the future with better monitoring. Third, quarantines have helped contain the spread of the pests, but implementation and enforcement have been difficult. Fourth, the only available method for eradicating these pests is to destroy the infested trees and plants--a costly and sometimes impractical approach. Lastly, despite budgeting over $420 million on these pests, USDA program managers told GAO that funding has not been sufficient to fully implement their programs. USDA conducts a range of forest health monitoring programs, including a pilot project in some urban areas; however, these programs do not provide for comprehensive monitoring in urban forests or other locations considered at high risk from pest invasions. Monitoring in such areas is important because they are common destination points for internationally traded cargo that is a frequent pathway for pests. Federal and nonfederal stakeholders involved in these efforts told GAO that appropriate mechanisms to coordinate response efforts are generally in place, although many noted that better coordination among agriculture and natural resource agencies would have helped produce a more effective initial response. In addition, USDA's P. ramorum control plan does not fully comply with a congressional requirement that it communicate future funding needs. Furthermore, USDA has not updated plans for the Asian longhorned beetle or emerald ash borer to communicate to decision makers or the public how it will modify its response efforts in light of fiscal years 2005 and 2006 funding reductions, and how those reductions have affected the long-term prospects for managing the pests. Panels of scientific experts have assisted USDA with each of the three pest responses, although GAO and stakeholders have some concerns about how they were formed or operated. For example, some stakeholders believed that the agency should have convened the panels more frequently and made the panel process more open to interested parties. GAO found that USDA does not have written procedures for forming and using science panels.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2006, USDA wrote to GAO that the Forest Service would, based upon the GAO report, expand the pilot program on Early Detection and Rapid Response (EDRR) to a national level effort. USDA stated that the pilot program has monitored for bark beetles in areas processing wood materials in about 80 locations across the country. By expanding to a national effort, USDA said that it would increase the number of monitoring sites three-fold. Many of these sites would occur in urban areas which would directly respond to the GAO recommendation of increasing monitoring efforts in urban environments. The national program would evaluate one-third of all the States each year, and each State would thus be on a 3-year cycle for monitoring in this program. In 2007, the Forest Service began national implementation of the EDRR project. Based on funding levels of about $700,000, the Forest Service has been conducting trapping in about 17 states each year. Traps are placed at high-risk locations in urban forests, such as city parks, near warehouses or other sites which may receive solid wood packing materials. Funding is provided to its Regions, which then fund states to conduct the trapping. From 2007 through 2009, the Forest Service has trapped in 45 state. According to USDA, following the 2009 season, the agency will reassess if it will continue to rotate through states on a 3-year cycle or concentrate its efforts in high-risk states. The recommendation also called for USDA to incorporate into its program the guidance on early detection issued by the National Invasive Species Council in 2003. According to USDA, there are many elements in the guidelines that were part of pilot project protocol and that were incorporated into the EDRR project as it began national implementation.

    Recommendation: To improve federal efforts to detect, manage, and eradicate infestations of invasive forest pests, the Secretary of Agriculture should expand current efforts to monitor forest health conditions, particularly in urban and suburban areas that are at high risk of receiving invasive insects and diseases. USDA's monitoring program should incorporate guidance on early detection issued by the National Invasive Species Council in 2003.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) responded that keeping management plans updated is a sound business practice which they support. According to APHIS, they have developed and posted to their website operational plans for the Asian long-horned beetle, the emerald ash borer, and P. ramorum. Business plans were completed for all three of these forest pests during 2009. These plans are reviewed and updated with the participation of stakeholders, scientific committees, and cooperators, as needed, but at least annually, according to AHPIS. Furthermore, for all three pests, APHIS provides information on current funding and resource needs for upcoming budget years through the annual budget development process.

    Recommendation: To improve federal efforts to detect, manage, and eradicate infestations of invasive forest pests, the Secretary of Agriculture should prepare, publish, and regularly update management plans for pests for which the department has initiated a management program. The plans and their updates should incorporate and describe changes in the extent of infestation; progress to date in control and eradication efforts; schedules for future control and eradication efforts, given known levels of funding; and future long-term funding needs. For the P. ramorum program in particular, an updated management plan should include the elements called for by law that were not included in USDA's 2005 plan, such as an estimate of the cost of anticipated activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to USDA/APHIS, the Plant Protection and Quaranting (PPQ) program objective is to obtain the best scientific information available to help guide the design and implementation of all management and regulatory programs. To accomplish this objective sometimes requires a multi-disciplined scientific committee. In other instances, one or two scientific experts meet the requirements. For some pests, the scientific committees meet once or twice; in other cases, they meet frequently to analyze data and adjust program activities. The increased staffing of the PPQ Center for Plant Health Science and Technology (CPHST) has greatly increased the availability of scientific expertise. CPHST has developed written procedures to define when and how to use scientific and technical experts, the types and roles of groups convened, and the criteria as to when a group should be chartered as an advisory committee under FACA.

    Recommendation: To improve federal efforts to detect, manage, and eradicate infestations of invasive forest pests, the Secretary of Agriculture should implement written procedures that broadly define when and how to operate panels of scientific experts for the purpose of assisting pest management teams, including a discussion on how to determine when such panels should be chartered as advisory committees under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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