Cedar Key need not bid farewell to Red Bay trees

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By The Staff

It seems as though every time you turn around another environmentalist is whining about yet another threat to life as we know it. Some seem far-fetched, while others appear inconsequential. I admit to being a whining environmentalist. The threat about which I am currently most distraught is of the second sort—unavoidable but unlikely to have much impact except if you live on Cedar Key, where huge red bay trees constitute an important part of the town’s crown cover, or an avocado farmer in South Florida.

Laurel wilt, a disease fatal to trees in the laurel family, is caused by an introduced Asian fungus that is transmitted by an introduced Asian ambrosia beetle. Other than those avocado growers who will watch the demise of their $30 million per year industry and the estimated 60,000 homeowners with avocados growing in their yards, few of the 35 million people living in the path of this killer will be much affected. After all, not everyone can recognize red bay or even sassafras trees, our two natives in most jeopardy. That said, butterfly fanciers will be saddened by the scarcity of now common but soon-to-be-rare spicebush swallowtails. And bird watchers may note further declines in populations of cedar waxwings and other fruit-eating species.

Laurel wilt might have been contained in 2002 when it was first detected near the Savannah harbor in Georgia, but the authorities decided to wait for more research and not to act. Even if they had tried to contain the infestation, with each tree releasing thousands of fungus-packing females smaller than a pinhead, they might have failed. I suspect that the avocado growers who now face the demise of their industry wish that they had screamed louder when first warned of the threat. But now this emerging pathogen has fully emerged, and all we can do is sit back and watch the trees die. Researchers can even estimate when and where red bay and sassafras trees are going to die.

I hesitate to draw more attention to laurel wilt. With economies tanking and wars erupting, people already have enough to worry about. Other than a few homeowners who will have to pay to have big bay trees removed, the direct financial costs of this tree disease will be slight outside of South Florida. So why bother providing yet another reason for depression?

My general reason for writing about laurel wilt is to encourage readers to go out and take a last (or first) look at the red bay and sassafras trees in their environs. Butterfly fanciers might want to photograph the laurel feeding swallowtails while they still have a chance. Unfortunately for Jacksonville-area residents, their chance has passed. Folks in Orlando, Gainesville, and Tallahassee better get out there this year if they want a last look. And South Floridians might want to take this opportunity to see some tree islands in the Everglades before they unravel when their red bays die. 

In writing for the lucky residents of Cedar Key, where lovely large red bays adorn many a shaded street, I have a more promising motivation. I suspect that this year or next, the beetles will be flying out over the causeway. If unaware residents import infested red bay fire wood, then the flying part of this scenario will be skipped and the invasion accelerated.

But if there is one place where laurel wilt could still be stopped, it’s along the causeway out to Cedar Key. There are probably millions of red bay trees in nearby Gulf Hammock, all of which are going to die and each of which is going to release thousands of fungus-packing female beetles. Fortunately, these beetles are not strong fliers, and are more likely to island hop between susceptible hosts out  along the causeway rather than fly all the way out to Cedar Key under their own power.

I claim no particular expertise about how to mount this sort of campaign, but I would suggest at least a big signboard near Rosewood to notify travelers of this impending menace. A reminder out at the Bridge #4 beetle bottleneck might help. I might even go for a preemptive strike on all of the red bay trees on Havens, Candy, and Dog Islands as well as on Scale Key, so as to deprive the little monsters of stepping stones.

My woodworking friends tell me that red bay is a prime material for furniture and turning, so if the proposed “Protect our Red Bay” campaign is never launched or fails, some of the million dollar price tag for all those tree removals might be defrayed by wood buyers.  If you get a fair price for the wood, just one of those huge red bay trees might pay for its own removal and that of several of its neighbors. 

While hesitating to point fingers at cash-strapped but foot-dragging bureaucrats, I still hope a lesson will be learned from the laurel wilt experience.  Laurel wilt will not be the last of these introduced scourges to follow in the wake of chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease. When the next biota-threatening exotic emerges, perhaps the reaction will be swift and there will be one fewer loss to mourn. In the meantime, I hope that this call-to-arms in Cedar Key results in a successful campaign to save the canopy over your lovely town.