Chasing Beetles in New York City
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's a sinister opponent with no known natural enemies. If it picks out a victim, that victim must be destroyed. It's the Asian longhorned beetle and its victims are the great hardwood trees of the US: maples, elms, poplars. But the US Department of Agriculture has a secret weapon in this war. NPR's Margot Adler reports it's a small brave army of fighters.
MARGOT ADLER reporting:
All spring, people strolling through Central Park have been noticing people in trees, climbing way up on long ropes and moving from branch to branch. They are not New Yorkers, but smoke jumpers from the West, the men and women who jump from planes and helicopters to put out forest fires. This spring, 11 smoke jumpers have been climbing more than 2,000 trees in a determined hunt for the Asian longhorned beetle.
Ms. CLAUDIA FERGUSON (Asian Longhorned Beetle Eradication Program): If it gets to the forest, if it gets out of the city, it threatens the quality of life of all of us, not to mention the timber industry and tourism.
ADLER: Claudia Ferguson is co-director of the Asian Longhorned Beetle Eradication Program in New York, which is part of the USDA. The beetle entered the US from China and Korea in packing boxes. Once it lays its eggs in a tree, that tree has to be totally eradicated. It's not academic. Two beautiful elms in Central Park were found to be infested this spring and destroyed. Even the roots were pulverized and burned. The beetle, first found in Brooklyn in 1996, has infested trees in Chicago and New Jersey and here in Central Park. The tiny egg sites are often high in the branches of trees.
Ms. FERGUSON: That's the best way to look for infestation. Go and be face-to-face with the branches and the trunk of the tree.
ADLER: So that's why bringing in good climbers, like the smoke jumpers, is essential. They come before fire season starts in the West. Ferguson takes out two pieces of sterilized bark. They have small, almost unnoticeable irregularities. A smoke jumper saw this on a tree in the park, thought it a possible infestation, cut the bark, turned it over, and there were the egg sites like small rice grains, almost invisible to the naked eye.
(Soundbite of beeping)
Unidentified Man #1: OK, Greg, I'm at the start point. OK, so, Paul, once we get around here, we'll hit the road, so everything from the road to the lake is what we're climbing.
ADLER: On a balmy day in the park, 11 smoke jumpers have consulted their maps and spread out. Although there are 24,000 trees in Central Park, only 7,000 are vulnerable. This spring's mission has been to climb about 2,000 of them. To get up a tree, they lob a throwball over a high branch attached to a thin rope, then they attach a larger rope. Christy Behm, who is usually based in McCall, Idaho, is the only woman among the group of 11.
Ms. CHRISTY BEHM (Smoke Jumper): My rope happens to be a hundred and twenty feet, and you obviously tie your rope into your harness, and I use a friction knot called a Blake's Hitch to get myself up and down the tree.
ADLER: I watch Brian Quisler(ph) and Greg Faschano(ph) hoist themselves up.
Mr. BRIAN QUISLER (Smoke Jumper): It's going to be a little tricky because of all these bushes. You might want to stand back a little bit...
Mr. QUISLER: ...because this is going to fling around all over the place.
ADLER: OK, OK.
Faschano uses a foot-lock to propel himself up.
Mr. GREG FASCHANO (Smoke Jumper): You just kind of put it on the outside of your foot, and then with the other foot, you kind of just bring the rope around like this. You step on this and then...
ADLER: You step on it and you suddenly have...
Mr. FASCHANO: Yeah, and you've got a nice little--some grip there.
ADLER: Who's up there?
Mr. FASCHANO: Oh, that's Christy.
ADLER: Wow, she's pretty high.
Mr. FASCHANO: Yeah. She's a good climber.
ADLER: Most of the smoke jumpers are in their 20s and 30s. Bob Bentey(ph), the supervisor of the group, is in his 40s. He and Christy Behm say they love New York.
Mr. BOB BENTEY (Supervisor): Climbing trees, working, sweating--it's great. We love it here. It's a different challenge.
Ms. BEHM: It's kind of a big Garden of Eden in the heart of the Big Apple.
ADLER: I asked Justin Horn(ph), another jumper, where they've been staying.
Mr. JUSTIN HORN (Smoke Jumper): Times Square.
Mr. HORN: Yeah.
ADLER: You're living in Times Square.
Mr. HORN: Yeah, two blocks off Times Square.
ADLER: So you get up in the morning and...
Mr. HORN: Walk down Broadway.
ADLER: Nothing like a little culture shock to begin your day. Bob Bentey is just lowering himself down from a gnarled willow at the edge of the Central Park lake to find himself surrounded by four dogs.
(Soundbite of dogs barking)
Mr. BENTEY: Look at this dog. You are a beautiful boy.
ADLER: The woman walking the dog, Rachel Lewis, rattles off a surprising number of facts about Central Park, the Asian beetle and the smoke jumpers. One day, she says, she just looked up and noticed them.
Ms. RACHEL LEWIS (Resident): And they were dressed with ropes and helmets. I started kidding around; I said, `Are you Power Rangers?' And then they told me that they were on the hunt for the Asian beetle. And no one believes me. I told about five people the story about men in the trees, and they just think I drank too much the night before.
ADLER: The smoke jumpers are happy to talk to passers-by. The beetles are more elusive. Justin Horn only saw one.
What, in a jar?
Mr. HORN: Yeah, in a jar or in a picture or something; not alive.
ADLER: Randall Crohn(ph) from Missoula, Montana, was the exception.
Mr. RANDALL CROHN (Smoke Jumper): I saw the beetle for the first time last year in New Jersey in a thicket of trees. My friend had actually caught it in his hand, even.
ADLER: The Asian longhorned beetle can destroy the water and food systems of the tree and can bore a hole the size of a ballpoint pen. The USDA has spent more than $200 million fighting this pest, and it's making progress, but Claudia Ferguson's biggest worry is that someone will pick up a dead branch from an infested tree and bring it to a country home for firewood, imperiling the neighboring forest. The smoke jumpers are now off to fight fires again in the West, but they'll be back, and people in the park, like Rachel Lewis, will be on the lookout for the beetles.
Ms. LEWIS: I'm convinced they're just waiting for a sneak attack. They're organizing their troops. It's going to be ugly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LEWIS: Well, we wish you all very good luck.
Unidentified Man #2: Thank you very much.
Ms. LEWIS: Find your man and get 'em.
ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.