Funding Levels Reveal Low Priority for Combatting Tree-Killing Pests

As the recent article demonstrated, non-native insects and pathogens pose a unique threat to America’s forests.  See also my blog posted May 10.

As Scott Schlarbaum and I said in Fading Forests III:

“Ultimately, then, the future of American forests is in the hands of our nation’s people.  In choosing our elected representatives, holding other government officials accountable, and making our private choices, we decide the priority of  whether addressing the causes and solutions to these pest issues is a priority – and, thus, whether we will keep of our natural heritage.  There is already a strong foundation for action.”

However, American society – as reflected in its political decisions – has not put a high priority on countering this threat. We outlined the long history of inadequate funding for USDA APHIS and USFS in chapters III and VI. Also, I wrote about the appropriations process for Fiscal Year 2017 (which begins in October) in my blog posted on March 22.


Recent action by the House of Representatives (see below) might signal a change. We shall have to wait to see whether this change lasts.


APHIS Funding

Too often, we think first of U.S. Forest Service funding as singularly important regarding non-native forest pests and pathogens. When it comes to prevention, though, its USDA’s Animal and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that is key.

Total funding for the USDA APHIS in FY17 will be on the order of $939 million. The budget for its plant health program is about $310 million.  Included in this sum are mere tens of millions for addressing tree-killing pests:

  • Tree and wood pests — $54 million in the Senate bill, but only $45.9 million in the House bill
  • “specialty crops” — $167.5 million in the House bill, $158 million in the Senate bill; with only about $5 million likely to be spent on managing the sudden oak death pathogen, especially movement of infected plants, soil, etc. in the nursery trade.

The Center for Invasive Species Prevention and others had requested the higher number for “tree and wood pests”.  We think higher funding is appropriate given the number of highly damaging wood-boring insects already in the country – e.g., Asian longhorned beetle; emerald ash borer; redbay ambrosia beetle and its associated laurel wilt pathogen; the polyphagous and Kuroshio shot hole borers and their associated pathogens … (all these species are described here).  Furthermore, there is every likelihood that additional pests will be detected in the country since the wood packaging pathways remains leaky (see the Lovett et al. article cited above and my blogs about the wood packaging material pathway posted in July through October 2015).

The House bill specifies that $15 million of the “specialty crops” money should be allocated to citrus pests and pathogens, fruit flies, a grapevine pest and a multi-host pest (light brown apple moth).

USFS Forest Health Funding

Funding levels for the USDA Forest Service also demonstrate a low priority to countering non-native tree-killing insects and pathogens.

Total funding for the USFS is about $5 billion.  In making its request for $4.9 billion, the Administration allocated only $92 million to countering threats to forest health (on both federal and non-federal lands).

The House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee has a different – and welcome – view: the House bill provides $114.6 million for forest health protection.  This is $15 million above the FY16 level and $22.55 million above the Administration’s request – a substantial increase unequaled in past years.  The accompanying committee report expresses concern about severe insect and disease threats, especially in California.  The report also notes that invasive forest pests threaten more than 58 million acres of the Nation’s forests.  The Committee encourages the Service to continue its work to assess future risks, control existing threats, research and develop new control methods, and improve the health of forest ecosystems.  Since only $5 million of the increase is to be used on non-federal lands, the “bump-up” for non-native pests will be modest.

A note of caution: the House expansion of funding for the forest health program was doubtless made easier by the House’s cuts to programs managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is funded by the same bill.)

The Senate bill follows the Administration in allocating only $92 million for forest health protection.

Not only has the Administration asked for less for the forest health program in recent years.  The funding allocations within that total trouble me.  In the current year (FY16), the USFS allocated only $20.2 million (15% of total forest health funds for this year) to specific projects targeting non-native insects or pathogens.  Nearly $10 million of these funds went to just one species – European gypsy moth.  The only other species receiving a significant proportion of the funds is hemlock woolly adelgid – HWA received $1.77 million. The second greatest allocation was to oak wilt — $466,000.  Ranking third is white pine blister rust, which was allocated $420,000.  A group of three species (goldspotted oak borer, thousand cankers disease, and laurel wilt) received a total $587,000.  This low figure does not, in my view, reflect the great damage caused by goldspotted oak borer and laurel wilt.  Furthermore, I assume that the polyphagous and Kuroshio shot hole borers are included in this grouping, although they are not listed specifically.  Both shot hole borers threaten many tree species in southern California riparian areas, and pose a possible threat to trees in other parts of the country.  All of these species are expected to receive less funding in FY17 under the Administration’s request.  (Again, all these species are described here).

(Native pests – southern and western bark beetles – received a total of $7.2 million in FY16. Invasive plants were allocated $1.7 million.  These figures are not included in my calculations in the preceding paragraph.)

USFS Research Funding

The House appropriations bill provides just under $292 million for research – the amount requested by the Administration.   The Senate bill cut funding for research to $280 million – a cut of $11 million from the FY16 level.  Worse, the Senate also added $2 million to the share of research funding allocated to foerst inventory.  The only mention of non-native pests and diseases in the report accompanying the Senate bill is a paragraph instructing the USFS to work with the USDI Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, USDA APHIS, and state agencies to address the threat to the Hawaiian Islands’ `ohi`a trees from the Ceratocystis fungus (the disease is described here).  This report emphasizes the importance of continuing research on forest product utilization.

Even more troubling, for years the USFS has allocated only about 3% of its total research budget to research on “pest” species (including invasive plants).  Of this total, about half – $5 million – has been allocated to projects targeting non-native insects or pathogens.  This year (FY16), the highest funding went to hemlock woolly adelgid, at $1.782 million.  The second greatest amount was allocated to emerald ash borer —  $1.168 million.

(In FY16, the non-native western bark beetles received nearly $1.4 million in research funding; invasive plants received nearly $1.9 million.  Again, these figures are not included in my calculations above. )

USFS Wildfire Funding

One explanation for the Administration’s lower funding requests is the great pressure on the USFS to fund management of wildfire.  The agency now spends more than half of its annual budget to fight wildfires.  This situation is expected to get worse as the climate warms and fires become even more frequent and intense.

The Obama Administration’s budget proposals for both FY16 and FY17 asked Congress to set up a system to pay the costs of fighting extreme wildfires in the same way it finances the federal response to other natural disasters.  When hurricanes and tornadoes cause sufficient damage to be declared disasters by the president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is authorized to exceed its annual budget and draw on a special disaster account. The account is adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.  President Obama suggested creating a similar exception for USDA Forest Service and Department of the Interior.

Currently, the USFS must obtain funds through annual Congressional appropriations – which are adopted too early for an accurate assessment of that season’s likely fire damage. When fire-fighting costs exceed the appropriation, the USFS must transfer money from other accounts – setting back forest restoration projects and efforts aimed at preventing wildfires.

The Obama administration asked Congress to end the need for such transfers by appropriating 70% of the 10-year average it costs to fight wildfires each year and allowing the Forest Service access to a disaster fund.

However, the Congress has been unwilling so far to establish the disaster fund.


The House bill’s welcome increase for the USFS forest health protection program – if enacted – would address pests that are already widespread.  Programs aimed at preventing introductions and responding to newly detected invasions – programs operated by APHIS – do not yet enjoy sufficient support from either the Administration or the Congress.

Advocates for stronger programs to combat non-native forest pests are exploring ways to ensure additional funding for key programs, especially early detection of and rapid response to newly detected outbreaks.  You will hear more about these ideas in future!


Descriptions of the Administration’s fire-funding proposal can be found at:


Posted by Faith Campbell


Junk the international phytosanitary system? One seed breeder says yes.

If you have read my earlier work, you know that I think the international phytosanitary “system” is not working well to prevent introduction of novel arthropods and pathogens that attack naïve plant hosts in the new ecosystem. For example, see my blog in May on the study of introduced forest pests with Gary Lovett as senior author; my blog in April 2016 on Phytopththoras in Europe; discussions of the problems in my reports, Fading Forests II and Fading Forests III – available here.

forum-1190786_960_720the IPPC is located in Rome

One plant breeder has read the critiques by Clive Brasier (world-famous British forest pathologist) and others and apparently concluded that the solution is not to strengthen phytosanitary measures but to abandon them! He suggests that instead of attempting to prevent pest introductions, agriculture should instead rely on new breeding technologies to rapidly breed plants that are resistant to the introduced pest.

D. Zamir (who works at the Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics, Faculty of Agriculture, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) has published an article in Plos 1 Biology citing Brasier’s criticisms (see Dr. Brasier’s web link above and my Phytophthora blog).  Zamir calls for the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) to launch a global plant breeding project.  In his view, such a project would not only improve plant species’ resilience vis a vis pest attacks. It would also build the scientific capacity of countries with high biological diversity

Zamir says that the IPPC is waging a losing defensive strategy that imposes ever-more regulations on plant movement and exposes those who would like to move plants for various reasons to increasingly heavy penalties if they violate the rules. At the same time, the internet provides unlimited opportunities for anyone to obtain mail-ordered seed, often with free international shipping.

Citing Brasier, Zamir notes that the current phytosanitary system has the following flaws:

  1. The system ignores the approximately 90% of pathogens that are unknown to science.
  2. It assumes that potential hosts will be taxonomically related to those affected in the country of origin, whereas the host range may be much wider in the new environment.
  3. Reliance on visual evaluations fails because pathogens might be present in a form that does not cause symptoms (e.g., spores).
  4. Aggressive pathogens identified in a particular country might not be recognized as a risky pest by the international community because of inefficient global communication of such threats.

Zamir says that biological diversity drives improvements in crop productivity and resilience to diseases and environmental stresses. In his view, release of new varieties provides added value to consumers, producers, and the environment.  Breeding programs often rely on the use of wild species and local varieties for gene mapping and rapid deployment of traits.  However, Zamir complains, the international system hampers exchanges of seed among countries. It is often not possible to ascertain if the original seed used as a source of the traits was obtained in accordance with all the phytosanitary regulations. Zamir says that breeders often “cut through the red tape” by sending the seed through the mail without obtaining a phytosanitary certificate.

Zamir then proposes that people concerned about plant productivity and health in the face of growing trade volumes and vulnerability to insects and pathogens should abandon reliance measures intended to prevent introductions of pests and instead launch a massive plant breeding program.

While his focus is apparently on crop breeding, Zamir cites success in breeding elm trees resistant to the Dutch elm disease pathogens as proof that this approach can work – and that success depends on access to the full genetic variability of the target species.

Zamir concedes that he has not addressed issues of governance, financing, selection of the species to be included in the program, and how to involve the private sector.

Of course, movement of seeds across ecological barriers poses less of a risk of introducing an alien pest than does movement of whole plants or cuttings. For that reason, phytosanitary regulations governing seed movement are more lenient than those for plants and cuttings.

I consider Zamir to wildly underestimate the difficulty – nay, impossibility – of applying his approach. To date, efforts to breed trees resistant to individual pests have required decades of effort. The U.S. tree breeding system falls far short of what is needed to respond to pests already in the country (see Chapter 6 of Fading Forests III, available here). For example, American chestnut has benefitted from decades of devoted effort – but success in countering chestnut blight is not yet certain, and the tree is under attack by another half-dozen pests.  (To see a reminder of how many tree taxa are under threat from non-native pests, go to the write-ups on the Don’t Move Firewood website or re-read articles by Lovett et al. or Aukema et al. 2010 — citations provided below.)

Even though modern genetic techniques, e.g., CRISPR –Cas9, seem to promise faster and cheaper breeding methods, how would breeding programs catch up to the tidal wave of new introductions?

Furthermore, few breeding programs for North American forest trees have yet proved a capacity to restore trees to the forest.

Finally, Zamir’s proposal would compound the existing equity problem. Already, the cost, environmental degradation, and other burdens of countering pest spread lie predominantly on the receiving society – including municipal tax payers and homeowners who must remove and replace trees killed by introduced pests (see Aukema et al. 2011.) Those who profit from international trade rarely pay directly. Zamir’s proposal would exacerbate that inequity by transferring all the risk of new introductions and cost of responding to new pests to the receiving ecosystem and the broad public. Those profiting from the trade would face next to no responsibility.

Fortunately, most plant breeders engaged in moving seed internationally have taken a more productive approach to adapting the international phytosanitary system to accommodate their business. The North American countries adopted a regional standard on the seed trade (RSPM# 36) in 2012.  A draft global standard will soon be circulated for comments by the IPPC member countries.

As I have said before, I call on phytosanitary agencies and the multitude of stakeholders harmed by pest movement – including grant-making foundations; federal and state agencies; conservation non-governmental organizations; forest products companies; trade associations representing various aspects of international trade in plants, wood packaging, and other vectors; and urban tree programs and mayors – to work together to improve U.S. and international phytosanitary programs.




Aukema, J.E., B. Leung, K. Kovacs, C. Chivers, K. O. Britton, J. Englin, S.J. Frankel, R. G. Haight, T. P. Holmes, A. Liebhold, D.G. McCullough, B. Von Holle.. 2011. Economic Impacts of Non-Native Forest Insects in the Continental United States PLoS One September 2011 (Volume 6 Issue 9)

Aukema, J.E., D.G. McCullough, B. Von Holle, A.M. Liebhold, K. Britton, & S.J. Frankel. 2010. Historical Accumulation of Nonindigenous Forest Pests in the Continental United States. Bioscience. December 2010 / Vol. 60 No. 11

Campbell, F.T. and S.E. Schlarbaum. Fading Forests I, II, and III at

Lovett, G.M., M. Weiss, A.M. Liebhold, T.P. Holmes, B. Leung, K.F. Lambert, D.A. Orwig , F.T. Campbell , J. Rosenthal, D.G. McCullough, R. Wildova, M.P. Ayres, C.D. Canham, D.R. Foster, S.L. LaDeau, and T. Weldy. 2016. Nonnative forest insects and pathogens in the United States: Impacts and policy options. Ecological Applications, 0(0), 2016, pp. 1–19. DOI 10.1890/15-1176.1 Available at

Zamir D (2016) Farewell to the Lose–Lose Reality of Policing Plant Imports. PLoS Biol 14(4): e1002438. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002438 Published:  April 19, 2016Available at Or



Posted by Faith Campbell