Monday, March 02, 2009

Seeking 21st Century Solutions to America’s Forest Health Crisis

The U.S. Endowment is serving in a catalytic role in a broad-based initiative regarding the potential of biotechnology as a tool in the fight to address forest health challenges. The partnership is designed to assess the potential to develop and deploy scientifically-sound, socially acceptable and rigorously vetted/regulated approaches that might see the benefits of biotechnology used in the fight against the ever increasing list of alien pests and diseases that threaten North America’s forests.

The partnership – “Advancing Forest Health through Biotechnology” -- is a three-year perhaps $10M effort that will use the American chestnut as the test tree. The Endowment has pledged $1M to the effort and will serve on the Steering Committee along with other core funding partners, the USDA Forest Service and Duke Energy. Additional guidance and oversight on the Steering Committee comes from Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and a retired forest scientist.

The Forest Health Crisis in North America is Large and Growing
Millions of acres of North American forests (perhaps as many as 58 million acres in the U.S. alone) in every region of the continent are suffering under an onslaught of pests both endemic and exotic unprecedented in human history.

Global climate change and expansion of global trade both portend a future with an increased number of forest health threats with accelerated rates of expansion.

Traditional Means to Address Emerging Threats Aren’t Enough
Traditional tools to address these emerging challenges fall woefully short of meeting needs. While tens of millions of dollars are being spent to fight existing and emerging threats, most result in triage at best with millions of acres and billions of dollars in forest value lost. (Annual timber losses from exotic pests in the U.S. are estimated at $4.2 billion – not accounting for monitoring, control and environmental losses.)

New challenges and the rapid nature of their expansion call for new tools in the fight. Forest biotechnology offers the potential to provide at least one new tool under timelines not practical with any other technology or response.

Foundations Should Lead and Take Calculated Risks that Others Cannot
The U.S. Endowment believes that it is the responsibility of Foundations to do those things that others can’t or are unwilling to undertake. Biotechnology is neither a panacea nor is it likely the plague that some suggest. The Endowment believes that the best way to explore the scientific potential of the technology is to do so in an open/transparent way that is conducted concurrently with societal discussions and regulatory engagement and oversight.

If the Endowment were to try and engage in traditional battles to address forest health challenges, our additional resources while important, would do little to advance the field. However, through a catalytic role and tightly-focused investment in biotechnology we have the potential to offer societal and forest health values that far exceed our small investment.

Science without Consideration of Social and Regulatory Interests Is Unacceptable
In keeping with the Endowment’s approach to all of its work, advances from this investment would be broadly available to society and all work would be conducted in an open/accessible manner. What sets this initiative apart from others is the commitment to concurrently integrate the science, social and regulatory paths in a single plan.

Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the Endowment supporting this initiative?
Adding a new tool to address North America’s forest health needs fits well with our mission of promoting sustainable forestry and even more directly nests within our initiative to address retention and restoration of healthy working forests. It also aligns well with our core commitments to creating new economic values from forests and benefit communities.

Why is the American chestnut the test tree?
American chestnut was once perhaps the most valuable and wide-spread tree in eastern forests. Its importance as a building material was unmatched. Yet, that is only part of the story. Chestnut was among the nation’s most desirable wildlife food crops as well as a staple for people. By focusing on an iconic tree that crosses the lines of economic and ecological value we have the potential to engage a broad base of interests.

What do you see as some of the biggest benefits potentially coming from this initiative?
While gaining a plantable American chestnut that could offer a new tree and nut crops to landowners and communities up and down the Appalachians would be important, even that pales in comparison to providing new, safe, economical and rapid means to address the growing number of forest health threats.

Aren’t you afraid that biotechnology will go awry and yield “Frankintrees?”
We acknowledge that biotechnology isn’t without potential risks. That said, we too must put things in perspective. Humans have been manipulating plant genes for literally thousands of years through traditional genetic crosses to yield plants and products that meet human needs. The advantage of this work is that it takes a holistic approach to the issue: science will be conducted concurrent with review of societal concerns and regulatory safeguards. Too, as another contextual issue, this work isn’t what one saw in the highly entertaining and perhaps frightening Jurassic Park. In this pilot, two closely related trees – American chestnut and Chinese chestnut – form the base for the work.

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