The Thorny Economics of Preventing Exotic Species Introductions

What if we lose tree species we know, love, and need? It has happened before.

“Look at what happened to the American chestnut,” says U.S. Forest Service research forester Thomas Holmes. “Look at what’s happening right now to hemlock, redbay, and ash trees.” All three species, as well as many more, are threatened by non-native insects or pathogens.

Non-native insects, pathogens, plants, and animals have been arriving for hundreds of years. Most fail to become established, but some thrive and rampage through their new homes. These non-native species cause immense ecological and economic damage.

“Currently, homeowners and municipalities shoulder most of the costs,” says Holmes.

Local governments treat, cut down, and replace ailing street trees. Municipalities spend an average of $1.7 billion each year cleaning up after wood-boring insects such as the emerald ash borer.

Homeowners face similar challenges, and when trees die, property values decline. Each year, tree death from non-native insects and pathogens costs homeowners an estimated $1.5 billion in lost property values.

About 70 percent of non-native insects and diseases in the U.S. hitchhiked on live plants. Untreated wood packing material can also carry an unintended cargo – exotic wood-boring insects.

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