By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
It’s not every educator who sees a teaching opportunity in a forest-munching nondescript brownish-gray moth. But Susan Linscott does.
And not just an opportunity to inform her students, but her community as well about the spruce budworm, a cyclical pest of spruce and fir trees that is now poised to reappear in the Maine woods after a decades-long absence, with potentially devastating effect.
Linscott’s service learning class of seniors at Lee Academy has been learning about the budworm and for their second semester final project the students are helping plan a May 25 community-wide informational meeting about the insect and its potential ecological and economic effects.
For Linscott, it’s a topical and timely subject, especially for the Penobscot County town, whose 900-plus people have a more intimate connection with the forest than in many other places, including many other towns in Maine.
“The forest is very much of a part of the community. We live in the woods,” said Linscott. She adds that the community has already been batterd by the closures of paper mills in Millinocket, Lincoln, and Old Town. “People are nervous,” Linscott said. She added that she wants to provide information about how the local forest economy is changing and what they can expect.
Spruce Budworm Is…
A Native moth
- Undergoes complete metamorphosis
- Adult = moth
- Immature = caterpillar (causes damage)
Caterpillars eat needles of fir and spruce trees (hosts), eating some within the bud before the needles expand (budworm)
Spruce budworm is always present in Maine’s spruce-fir forests
“It’s important – that connection between the forest and our lives here. It’s an integral part of our lives, whether you make your living in the woods or just like to walk in the woods. I have a lot of kids in my classes who like to go hunting in the fall. It’s getting kids to understand that it (the budworm) has the potential to impact them.”
The spruce budworm, Choristoneura fumiferana, is a native insect pest that periodically ravages the spruce-fir forests of the U.S. and Canada.
It’s actually not the brownish-gray adult moth that does the damage, but its larvae, which eat young needles and buds. Damaged trees turn a rusty red, then die. Sometimes by the millions. The last outbreak in Maine occurred in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. It defoliated millions of acres of forest, led to a costly and vigorous aerial spray program and widespread salvage logging and had a profound effect on the state’s forest products industry that continues to this day.
Now, scientists say Maine is in line for another outbreak.
The budworm has devastated millions of acres in Quebec and traps are showing increasing numbers of moths in Maine. According to the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests at the University of Maine, the coming outbreak may not be as bad as the last one. But it will still “have a significant negative impact on the spruce-fir forest and forest landowners in northern Maine, as well as on the supply of spruce-fir for the forest products industry for the next two decades or more.” The state’s Spruce Budworm Task Force has issued a report with details about the budworm and recommendations for a response to the threat.
Linscott teaches physics and environmental science at Lee Academy, a tiny private high school that serves Lee and other area towns, but also accepts students from elsewhere. A significant percentage of the school population comes from other countries. She is a facilitator for Project Learning Tree, an award-winning environmental education program, who is interested in doing anything she can to promote forest education.
Students in her service learning class, all seniors, have been learning about the budworm’s life cycle, its history in the region and its effects on forest ecology and the forest economy. The public forum they are planning for May 25 at Mallett Hall in Lee will feature experts on the budworm, including forest entomologist Allison Kanoti and Maine Forest Service District Forester Terri Coolong. “I’m hoping that a few of the folks who experienced the last outbreak will also come and share their experiences,” said Linscott.
Posters about the life cycle of the budworm will be displayed, the results of a collaboration between Linscott and art teacher Emily Rideout, whose students were encouraged to paint or draw endangered or invasive species.
Linscott said she also hopes to get a handful of students to volunteer to take part in another budworm-related research project over the summer – hanging and checking pheromone traps that would help scientists monitor the moth population in the state.
Voigt Toby, one of Linscott’s students, said she’s found the spruce budworm an “extremely interesting species” to study. Toby, 18, said she finds it fascinating that the insect does the most damage to the forest early in its three-stage life cycle. She said what’s she’s learned has convinced her that the pest poses a grave danger to the state’s forest.”It’s important for our community to become educated” about it.
Coolong, the MFS district forester, said while older people may remember the last outbreak, Toby and her classmates may be the exception when it comes to younger people. “I don’t think the current generation understands how devastating another budworm outbreak could be, or much about the life cycle.” Emerald ash borer and Asian longhorns beetle, both exotic imported pests, have gotten a lot of press, but the budworm, a native insect, hasn’t gotten the same attention, she said.
Efforts like Linscott’s are important because they make people aware of biological events that have far reaching economic and physical impacts on our region,” said Coolong. “Having more eyes on the problem might allow us to treat small areas of infestation before they become large. They may also provide more public acceptance of certain silvicultural practices that will be needed to treat infested areas. It also may encourage landowners to be more proactive in managing their woodlands to mitigate insect problems.”
Sherry Huber is the executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation, which sponsors Project Learning Tree (PLT) in Maine, and a member of the state’s Spruce Budworm Communications Committee. She said the panel “asked three teachers to develop lessons, using the PLT model, that could be used statewide to help students understand the implications of this outbreak on the forest resource.”
Getting the facts about the budworm to young people is a critical part of the overall effort to get the public to understand “the impacts of a budworm population explosion, including damage to the forest and wildlife, economic impacts, and what actions are being taken to mitigate the damage and how the forest is recovering,” Huber said.
For her part, Linscott likes Project Learning Tree’s emphasis on bringing a variety of subjects – whether math, science or writing – into one lesson.
And, she loves the forest and thinks kids should get out in the woods more, and not just for their physical health, but because it’s a bigger part of their lives. “They need to understand it. Whether it’s just because they like to go bird hunting or fishing in a trout stream or because their family makes money from the woods or just because they like to go outside for a walk in the woods.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry and nature.