Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sudden Oak Death - Lack of Education and Control Poses Huge Environmental, Economic Risks

I just read a sad article about sudden oak death (SOD), a disease that is killing coast live oaks and other black oak species in forests along the California coast. In the article, experts basically concede there is nothing they can do to prevent its spread. What I find sad about this is that I don't think land managers have ever really made a serious effort (one expert on the disease who I once discussed this with said the politics were too difficult). While biologists studying the disease will bag and spray their shoes after working in SOD-infested habitat, there have been not been nearly enough substantial efforts to control it or, especially, to educate the public about how they can avoid spreading the disease.

In Muir Woods National Monument just north of San Francisco, for example, which is highly infested with SOD, they have maybe a few small signs about the disease that few people ever see. In fact, when hiking in the area, I sometimes conduct informal surveys of other hikers and have found maybe 1 in 100 people to know about SOD and to have seen the signs. Pretty much every time I ask, "do you know about Sudden Oak Death", the hikers say "no". But they are always glad to learn about the disease and what they can do to avoid spreading it to their neighborhoods.

The problem with this lack of education and control in a place like Muir Woods, which is highly and internationally visited, is that the neighborhoods that hikers might spread the disease to include forests all over the U.S. and world. I find the lack of effort (surely land managers can do better than a few small signs!) to reflect a frustrating level of inaction in fighting the spread of the disease.

What might the consequences be? Here in the western U.S., oaks aren't a major timber species of economic importance, though they are a very important wildlife species, providing food and shelter for animals and plants alike. Back east, however, vulnerable species such as northern red oak (Quercus rubra), and eastern black oak (Quercus velutina) are of substantial importance to the region's timber industry. The introduction of SOD would therefore have a much more significant economic impact that it has had out here in California. Unless more stringent control and education measures are taken immediately in highly infested areas of California, I predict it is just a matter of time before the disease turns up back east. And then people will REALLY wish they had done more early on to control the disease out here in California.

I hope that I am wrong, but this is a huge example of where a lack of funds and time invested in preventing the spread of an invasive species like SOD early allows the problem to balloon into something out of control, both ecologically and economically. As they say, an ounce of prevention... We've got to get these things early. In SOD's case, we really need to step up public education and control efforts here in California now, before the disease is spread to the east coast--especially at highly visited sites that are also highly infested, such as Muir Woods and many other trails in northern California.


  1. I received an outstanding response by email from a SOD expert at UC Davis. Hoping to either see it added to comments or receive permission to post parts of it as a follow-up.

  2. What can hikers do? Should we wash our boots? Avoid certain paths or what? If you have answers feel free to email me.

  3. Tim, when hiking in infested forests, usually in the Bay Area - sometimes more north, sometimes more south - I always spray my shoes with lysol after a hike. This is apparently especially important during times the Sudden Oak Death pathogen is sporing, between about March and June. I've seen researchers who are coming from infested areas actually remove, spray, and BAG their footware, to be more thoroughly decontaminated later. I do things like this when I have mud in my boots during sporing season. The key goal is to make 100% sure that before you bring that footware into an unfested area, it is decontaminated.