Too many scientists and federal policymakers focus so much on climate change that they’ve given short shrift to environmental threats that are destroying our forests and waterways at unprecedented rates. One could argue that invasive species, not warming temperatures, are the greatest threat posed to natural balance in North America. They're animals and plants that don’t belong in our country but have ended up taking root, destroying our resources in perpetuity.
Among them is the emerald ash borer, a beetle that came from Asia in the 1990s and has killed more than 1 billion ash trees. More than 7 billion of these trees are threatened by this unstoppable beast, and if you look across Western New York you will see the damage wrought: our forests and backyards are full of the skeletonized trees.
Also quite noticeable here is the mass die-off of beech trees. Other than saplings destined for short lives, the smooth-barked trees well known for their carved graffiti will be wiped out by 2030. The loss of those nut-bearing trees will affect every mammal in the forest.
Then there’s the woody adelgid, which is wiping out hemlocks across the northeast. Once those coniferous trees, which define so many ridges in the Adirondack and Appalachian mountains, die off, so will songbirds like warblers and thrushes that frequent them.
The pestilence doesn’t end in our woodlands. Our waterways are under attack, too. Consider the Asian carp, a large bottom-feeding fish making its way across the Great Lakes where it will be certain to disrupt the system’s $7 billion fishery.
These invaders represent only the tip of the iceberg. Many more are here. More are coming.
It wasn’t always like this. Prior to the 1990s our greatest invasive nightmares were limited to the introduction of pests and disease that wiped out elms and chestnuts, trees that once grew large and dominated our forests. Those depressing die-offs took place slowly, over decades.
Since then, it seems like the floodgates have opened. Now, such attacks seem to be affecting so many species, so fast. You can blame our shrinking world and the global economy for that.
Between 1980 and 2020 the deadweight tonnage of container ships utilized in global trade grew from 11 million metric tons to 275 million metric tons. Seven million shipping containers come to America alone every year, filled with unchecked products of questionable integrity from questionable sources. If the products themselves are suspect, imagine the skids upon which they are shipped (what insects do they carry?) or the crafts that carry them (what do their ballasts hold?).
That begs the questions: Why has the EPA done so little to regulate trade and incoming material? Why haven’t corporations been more diligent at self-policing?
The Constitution describes the limited purposes of our federal government and among them is the provision of common defense and regulation of trade. Under those designations, the EPA has justification and mandate to focus on those invasive species at the point of entry. If the EPA were serious about living out its mission and responsibilities it would set strict rules and conduct numerous inspections to protect our nation from these outside factors that will compromise our environment and health more than a slowly warming Earth ever will. Instead, it seems as if the borders are left wide open and unprotected and the states must fend for themselves in containing the pestilences. By then, it’s too late.
But, laws and federal audits should be the last line of defense. It must start with the perpetrators. So many corporations are into heavy virtue signaling about their green practices and mission statements in response to global warming. But, what of other environmental matters and their other activities throughout their supply chain and the distribution of their products and services? They should be following best practices — like irradiating pallets, for example — to ensure insects and disease don’t piggyback on incoming shipments. Strong corporate cultures and controls are necessary to prevent the destruction of forests and waters.
Sadly, it seems like Big Money is winning out here, especially with help from abroad. On Wall Street, rarely is there marriage between the environment and the bottom line. Then, add corrupt trading partners like China, which would prefer to see our resources expunged because it means more exporting business for them. Our losses are their gains. Invasive species represent a sort of economic warfare.
We need to bring this war — one that’s environmental and economic — to an end. The EPA and our largest businesses must work in concert to prevent the next pest from coming here and destroying our environment. With many invasive species, there’s no return from their damage. Let’s not let the actions of today ruin our lands for generations to come.
Bob Confer of Gasport is the vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. Email him at email@example.com.