Death and Fines

Foreign terrorists live and work among us – millions of them – and collectively do billions of dollars in damage every year. But most of their attacks make only the local news, if they get reported on at all.

The terrorists I’m talking about are invasive pests – insects like the Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB), which was first identified in the US in the mid-1990’s in the pallets of a shipment of goods from China to New York. The beetle has since spread to Chicago, New Jersey, Texas, Florida and California, among other states. Infestations have also been found across Canada, as well as in Britain, Germany and Austria.

Given the wide variety of woods that it attacks, like maple, poplar, birch, willow, chestnut and ash, the beetle poses an enormous threat to the lumber and tourism industries. In case you doubt the ability of the Asian Longhorned Beetle to destroy living trees, here’s a photo of the larva of one beetle:

An infected tree was discovered in Worcester, Massachusetts in late 2008 and over the course of the next year about 2500 more infected trees were identified. Officials cut them down, along with about 20,000 additional healthy trees, in an effort to prevent the spread of the infestation.

Under the Plant Protection Act, the US federal government also imposed a quarantine zone including Worcester and parts of several surrounding communities, making it illegal to take wood from inside the quarantine area to outside that area.

One result of cutting down an enormous number of trees and simultaneously prohibiting the exportation of their wood, of course, was a sharp drop in the price of firewood within Worcester. By itself this might have been desirable, since it would have encouraged homeowners to burn the scrap wood.

But the low price of wood also made it much more profitable for sellers to buy wood in Worcester and export it to the surrounding areas. In November 2008, two companies in Rhode Island (Warwick Tree Service of East Greenwich and Yard Works of Warwick) were caught buying wood in Worcester and shipping it to North Kingston, Rhode Island, for sale to local homeowners. The companies were fined $1,875 each.

Anyone compiling examples of unintended consequences of well-meaning laws should add this one to their list. By imposing a quarantine, the US federal government intended to prevent the transportation of wood from Worcester to other areas. But instead, the quarantine drove down the price of firewood, making it more desirable to move wood out of Worcester.

In these economic times, many people are upset by high tax burdens and the increasing willingness of the government to impose fines as a means to generate revenue. As I see it though, in cases like this one, where the government imposes a quarantine, it really is obligated to either (1) impose very high fines on violators of the quarantine (especially when the chance of getting caught is low) or (2) impose a tax on quarantined wood to drive its price up enough to make exporting it be not worth the effort while still keeping the price low enough to encourage homeowners to burn the uninfected wood.

Given the choice, I think my preference would be for high fines, since taxes essentially penalize everyone and finding the right level might be difficult. But either way, imposing a quarantine without somehow counterbalancing its effect is a recipe for disaster.


  1. In Worcester, MA there have been a total of 17,716 ALB infested trees identified. 16,712 infested trees have been removed and 10,250 high-risk host trees have also been removed. Only infested trees will be removed going forward.
    11,723 infested trees were found in 2009. 5,993 infested trees have been found so far in 2010. ALB has caused tens of thousands of hardwood trees to be destroyed in Illinois, New Jersey and New York too. Trees in forests and cities all across America are at risk. But with your help, we can stop it!

  2. Rhonda,

    Those are some very depressing statistics.

    I think everyone should at least check out the ‘What Does It Look Like?’ page of your site so that they can stay alert.

    Best regards,

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