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Much research, few answers as laurel wilt disease spreads

CORAL SPRINGS — A Jurassic-sized, tree-killing plague from tiny Asian beetles is spreading a peculiar ecological disaster called laurel wilt disease across the Southeast.

Dozens of scientists and concerned citizens saw the problem firsthand during a field trip through the Everglades as part of the “Conference on Laurel Wilt Disease and Natural Ecosystems” held June 16-18 in Coral Springs. The Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes were among the conference’s sponsors.

Thousands of acres of redbay, swamp bay, avocado and other trees in the laurel family have succumbed to redbay ambrosia beetles in Florida since 2005 when the bugs were first discovered in Duval County. Since then, blown south by trade winds and Florida storms and replenished by hiding in wood crates or firewood dropped off at ports and carried by trucks through all parts of North Carolina to Florida and up the Gulf Coast around to Texas, the plague-carrying beetles have now reached the Everglades.

The interdisciplinary group of experts in entomology, pathology, dendrology, economics and law – known as the Emerging Threats to Forest Research Team – heard about the cultural significance of the redbay trees to Native Americans in Florida during a presentation by Lanette Sobel, a doctor of plant medicine student at the University of Florida. Sobel began with a short history of Florida Indians and their relationship with the swamps and Everglades.

“The swamps were a great place to hide. [The Florida Indians] are here today because they hid there from the soldiers,” she said.

During the past year, Sobel traveled through Seminole and Miccosukee Country, taking cuttings, identifying resistant trees and talking to Tribal members, including Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry.

Among her findings: “Both redbay and swamp bay are physically and culturally important plants [to the Indians]. Together they are collectively called tu-lee … a key ingredient in over 90 percent of their traditional medicine … also a key element in cultural activities. Tu-lee is used in everything from when a child is born to when something dies and everything in between. So it is a very, very important plant to these Tribes.”

During her research, she also became aware that “there is a debate internally within the Tribes as to whether we should do anything at all. It’s just something where the universe says, ‘Hey, this is what is going to happen; there’s nothing you can do without it, nor should we, or should we?’”

She also talked to Chairman James E. Billie in Brighton.

“I met him and he was like, ‘Let’s see what can be done,’” she said.

There was little hope or good news projected at the conference, which included participation by several staff from the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes. Participants included Grant Steelman, Seminole Fire Rescue forester; Whitney Sapienza, Seminole tribalwide Environmental Reservation Protection specialist III; Paul Backhouse, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum director and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer; James Erskine and Amy Castaneda, Miccosukee Water Resources staffers; and Rory Feeney and Candice Allen, of the Miccosukee Fish and Wildlife Department.

“American forests are increasingly suffering from emerging invasive pests and diseases with important economic, ecological, aesthetic and cultural impacts,” stated the conference brochure. “Introduced tree diseases vectored and wood borers nearly eradicated a number of American tree species and are now threatening crops such as walnuts, avocados and mangoes. To curb the increasingly frequent establishment of exotic pests and diseases, a new approach is needed, one that is proactive and interdisciplinary.”

One speaker asked questions for which no answers exist yet.

“After all the bay trees die, what happens next? Will the beetle hang around? Will they go after other species of trees outside the laurel family?” asked Jeff Eickwort, a supervisor with Florida Forest Service’s forest health unit in Gainesville, who, along with Bud Mayfield, forest entomologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry, first discovered the redbay ambrosia beetle in Florida. “What is going to happen when all these trees are gone?”

Several speakers spoke of the need to find resistant trees – bay trees that seem healthy, even though surrounded by the highly contagious laurel wilt on nearby dead or dying trees.

“We want to find out why some trees are not affected and others are,” said Jason Smith, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation and the principal organizer of the conference. “Any citizen can help us. Just mark down the location and call us. We’ll go out and find it.”

Anyone with information about healthy redbays, swamp bays or avocado trees near trees marked by the dead, reddish-brown leaves that indicate laurel wilt should call 352-327-1742.