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Bans on California Plants Likely to Ease

April 10, 2004|Arlene Martinez | Times Staff Writer

Four states that have banned the importation of all California-grown plants because of an outbreak of a wild tree disease will probably have to ease their restrictions as a result of rules issued Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The federal regulations, which relate to the interstate transport of 59 species susceptible to the disease, override "all the individual state quarantines," said Claude Knighten, spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Since the discovery of the disease at two commercial Southern California nurseries last month, Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky and West Virginia have taken a hard line and banned all California-bred plants. Now, under the guidelines in the federal Plant Protection Act, those states must begin accepting plants not known to carry or catch the sudden oak death pathogen, Knighten said.

Officials in Florida, the No. 2 domestic producer of plants behind California, had not seen the final set of rules as of Friday evening. But a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said officials would consider taking some action, such as petitioning for an exemption, if the regulations didn't sufficiently protect Florida's industry.

Eleven other states have implemented partial bans on California nursery products. Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are also testing for the pathogen.

There are 30 plant species known to contract sudden oak death and 29 species that can become infected in a controlled setting like a nursery. Under the federal quarantine rules, all 59 species will be screened for the disease and will have to carry a disease-free certification before they can be shipped across state lines. The disease was first discovered in wild tanoaks in Northern California in 1995.

California's $2.35-billion nursery plant industry, facing millions in losses because of the bans, had been pressuring the USDA to intervene and issue quarantine guidelines. The federal agency was prompted to act this week when the pathogen showed up on California-grown plants in Florida and Georgia.

The pathogen's spread "concerns us but we plan to do everything we can to keep the normal trade going," said Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin.

USDA inspectors are conducting a national survey to determine where and how widespread the disease may be, Knighten said.

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