Of all the essentials for outdoor recreation, few items look as benign as firewood. You tote it in, you burn it up, you leave the leftovers behind. But those familiar bundles can, in fact, be the equivalent of a Greyhound bus for invasive insectspests that pose a major threat to both forest ecology and our urban and backcountry aesthetic.
The Journal of Economic Entomology published a study earlier this month reporting that nearly 50 percent of commercial firewood bundles sampled in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah contained live insects. Given the scope of recreational travel, those bugs could be piggy-backing to scores of remote locations. The study's findings translate to a "sizable increase in dispersal potential beyond the natural spread capabilities of most forest insects."
Montana's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has been collaborating with the grassroots Don't Move Firewood campaign for more than three years to trap bug specimens and educate hunters and campers on the possible ramifications of transporting firewood. Unlike native pests such as the mountain pine beetle, folks tend to be less aware of non-native insects. Just this week, the DNRC's Amy Gannon ordered 200,000 postcards urging out-of-state visitors to leave the firewood at home.
"We sent 17,000 of them this year to non-resident hunters saying, 'Enjoy your trip to Montana, but please don't bring your firewood,'" Gannon says. "I was just on a conference call...talking about where our ash resources are and how we can detect whether they're being threatened by the emerald ash borer."
There are currently no federal regulations governing transport of firewood, and Montana has no restrictions of its own in place.
One specific concern Gannon cites is the emerald ash borer, a beetle that's wreaked havoc on tree stands in New England for years. We don't have it yet, Gannon says. But Minnesota is experiencing a serious outbreak, "and that's not that far away." The borer won't travel all the way to Montana on its own. Hitching a ride with tourists is a different story.
The same concern goes for Montanans traveling outside the state. Just as we don't want Minnesota's ash borers, Gannon says, other states don't necessarily want our beetles.
"You look at firewood and you think, 'Gosh, that's awfully benign.' But no, in fact it's a major pathway for invasive insects...This is a big deal as far as our recreation and aesthetics."