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View of forest insects changing from pests to partners

CORVALLIS The massive insect epidemics that have plagued Pacific Northwest forests in recent years are mostly a reflection of poor forest health conditions, overcrowding, overuse of chemicals, fire suppression and introduction of monocultures or non-native species, a new report concludes.

Beyond that, these insect attacks are actually nature's mechanism to help restore forest health on a long-term basis and in many cases should be allowed to run their course, according to Oregon State University scientists in a new study published this week in the journal Conservation Biology In Practice.

Native insects work to thin trees, control crowding, reduce stress and lessen competition for water and nutrients, the researchers found. Some levels of insect herbivory, or plant-eating, may even be good for trees and forests, and in the long run produce as much or more tree growth.

"There is now evidence that in many cases forests are more healthy after an insect outbreak," said Tim Schowalter, an OSU professor of entomology. "The traditional view still is that forest insects are destructive, but we need a revolution in this way of thinking. The fact is we will never resolve our problems with catastrophic fires or insect epidemics until we restore forest health, and in this battle insects may well be our ally, not our enemy."

Historically, Schowalter said, destructive forest insects such as the mountain pine beetle or tussock moth were native to Pacific Northwest forests and served an essential role in keeping them healthy. When trees became too crowded the insects would eliminate weaker trees and reduce competition. But since the beetles' reproductive pheromones only carried effectively about 15-20 feet, naturally open stands of mature pines were protected against widespread outbreaks.

In these same forests today, fire suppression has allowed shade-tolerant, fire-intolerant species to crowd the understory, create an entire forest stressed for water
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Contact: Tim Schowalter
schowalt@bcc.orst.edu
541-737-5511
Oregon State University
30-Oct-2001


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