Nanette Pelkey stuck a few pieces of firewood in her car trunk and headed out with her husband for a four-hour trip to his brother’s camp in New York’s Finger Lakes.
A little while later, the 56-year-old woman was stopped at a checkpoint and handed a $250 ticket for violating the state’s ban on moving untreated camp wood more than 50 miles from its source, a regulation imposed along with limits on lumber companies to stem the spread of invasive pests like the destructive emerald ash borer.
The invasive Chinese beetle was first found near Detroit in 2002 and has been spreading eastward, laying waste to tens of millions of trees and spurring nervous environmental officials to set traps, educate the public and take sometimes strict measures to try to halt its march before it reaches New England.
“I put six — six — pieces of wood in the back of my car,” Pelkey said, something she readily admitted when asked by an officer at an Adirondack Mountains intersection busy with folks heading to camps on a Friday evening. “I had never, ever heard of that whole thing. My husband had heard of it, but I packed the car.”
At around the same time Pelkey and another woman were being snared at the Department of Environmental Conservation roadblock earlier this month, another state agency was watching a timber stand in Greene County after a tip loggers were cutting down ash trees to be taken out of the county, violating a quarantine. Officials at three businesses — a trucking company and two lumber companies — were subsequently charged with crimes that carry penalties up to 60 days in jail and $1,000 fines.
With the stepped-up enforcement, New York is following the lead of states to the west that have battled the pest now threatening New England, where sticky purple hanging traps are popping up on trees to provide early warning. The stakes are high: Timber products are a multibillion international business employing about 26,000 people in New York alone. And research hasn’t yet yielded a way to destroy the borers en masse.
Last year, foresters found a major infestation of the bright green insect in Greene and Ulster counties, south of Albany and the farthest east of any colonies found since the beetle made it to New York in 2009. The counties, among a growing list with limits on the movement of ash material, were joined last week by Orange County, just to the south in the Hudson Valley, after an adult ash borer was found stuck in a trap at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.
Experts fear it will next make the jump over the Hudson River to New England, prompting New Hampshire to impose a quarantine on some out-of-state firewood as of July 18. Authorities there say they found 40 percent of out-of-state campers bring wood from home, and every piece they checked had insects.
The quarantine, also meant to thwart the Asian longhorned beetle, generally limits wood to packaged and labeled logs that have been heated and dried to kill any bugs. In some places, regulators and commercial firewood producers have worked out agreements to ensure wood is safe, state officials say.
The worries go beyond denuded stands of trees and gaps in city streetscapes, where ash has been a favorite.
“There are international concerns that affect the bottom line,” said Eric Carlson, executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association, an industry group. He said the industry is cooperating by training workers to recognize the hard-to-spot, half-inch long bug and working with regulators. Some rules, though, have taken a toll on smaller mills that can’t afford to upgrade equipment, he said.
Kevin King, director of the Division of Plant Industry at the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, said inspectors are doing spot checks of logging trucks, sometimes piggybacking on state police truck safety enforcement.
“It’s not practical for us to pull over every truck on the highway,” he said.
At a June 25 checkpoint in central New York, 650 vehicles were stopped, and 15 people carrying firewood that violated restrictions got warnings but no fines. There have been about a dozen checkpoints this year, and others are planned for Aug. 11 and Sept. 2 in western New York.
So far, Pelkey, of Crown Point on Lake Champlain, is one of the unfortunate few who have been ticketed. Peter Fanelli, the DEC’s director of law enforcement, said authorities have delivered hundreds of oral warnings, but just a dozen tickets, and continue to stress educating campers.
“We’re not going to solve this by writing tickets,” Fanelli said. “If people continue hiding firewood from us, our efforts won’t amount to much.”
When Pelkey was stopped, she wasn’t summarily searched. An officer asked if she had firewood in the car and requested she pull over when she said there was some in her trunk.
Cheryl Patnode and Linda Robinson, friends and veteran campers from Glens Falls, cooked up pancakes and sausage over a wood fire in Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County this week. They said they don’t find the regulations inconvenient and simply buy bagged wood and scavenge for deadfall.
Robinson even carries a 3-year-old receipt from the woodcutter who took down and split some maples at her home so she can document the logs are safe when she takes any within the 50-mile boundary.
“I think it’s a good thing; it’s protecting the environment,” Patnode said. “We do our part.”