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USDA Aims to Trim Back Florida Plant Ban

Agency is in talks with the state, seen as key among those blocking flora from California.

March 31, 2004|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

U.S. Department of Agriculture regulators were negotiating Tuesday with Florida officials to find ways to ease the state's ban on all California-grown nursery plants, which may violate federal rules.

California's $2.35-billion nursery industry has been urging the USDA to take action against Florida, whose blockade goes far beyond the limited federal quarantine designed to prevent the spread of sudden oak death, a fungus-like disease that kills certain plants in the wild and that was recently detected at two Southern California nurseries.

Kentucky followed Florida in implementing a total ban and then went a step further this week by adopting a policy that also stops California firewood, lumber, fresh wreaths and garlands from crossing its borders. Nine other states have instituted limited bans of certain plants, particularly camellias and rhododendrons and also dozens of other species that might be carriers of the pathogen.

But Florida is seen as the key player in the battle because of its size and its role behind California as the No. 2 producer of nursery plants domestically. California sells about $500 million worth of plants to other states; government officials say it's unclear what percentage goes to Florida.

"If Florida backs down," said Chris Ono, owner of Mitsuwa Nursery in Moorpark, "I think a lot of the other states will too."

The bans come at the beginning of the spring planting season, when California nursery growers typically reap as much as two-thirds of their annual sales. Commercial nurseries are expected to lose millions of dollars in revenue, according to state agriculture officials.

Mitsuwa and other growers contend that the strict quarantines by Florida and other states violate the provisions of the federal Plant Protection Act, which gives the secretary of agriculture the authority to regulate the interstate commerce of agricultural products and other commodities that pose a risk of harboring plant pests.

The USDA agrees with the California growers' characterization of the law, and regulators are working with Florida and other states to "show them it was unnecessary to have their own restrictions," USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins said. Talks were expected to continue today.

One way the government has sought to assuage the states' concerns is by deciding Monday to expand a quarantine of 12 California counties to include the entire state. Nurseries that want to ship any of the 28 plant species that can be host to sudden oak death must undergo inspection and be certified that they are pathogen free.

Florida agriculture officials, however, believe that even the expanded federal quarantine doesn't require the inspection of enough plant species to ensure the disease won't spread, said Denise Feiber, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The state, she said, would be willing to lift its ban if the USDA stiffened its rules or let Florida be more restrictive than the current federal regulations.

"We fear that we might let something in that is not currently on the list but we will find out next week should be," Feiber said.

There's no argument that the 28 plant species known to contract sudden oak death in the wild should be tightly inspected and quarantined, she said. What's under debate is how to treat "associated hosts" -- 31 species that have demonstrated the ability to catch the disease in a controlled setting.

Florida wants those plants on the quarantine list. And Feiber said the state would like some level of regular inspection of previously pathogen-free flora to make sure the disease doesn't spread to other species.

California's nursery industry disagrees.

"Now you are getting into regulating the 'what ifs,' " said Don Dillon, chairman the California Assn. of Nurseries & Garden Centers. "If you do that, every plant is a suspect. You can't regulate that way."

Feiber acknowledged that the state's ban was creating a hardship for California growers. But she noted that it also had disrupted Florida's retail nursery industry by cutting off a major supplier of plants.

"Everyone is concerned about this and we want to reach an agreement with the USDA," Feiber said.

When the unilateral moves by states started this month, California agricultural officials projected that the industry could lose as much as $100 million in sales. With new federal regulations in place and the prospect that states might ease restrictions, officials have downgraded that to "millions of dollars," said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Sudden oak death was first spotted in 1995 on tanoak trees in Marin County. University of California researchers identified the fatal pathogen five years later. By 2001, the USDA had initiated a quarantine of 12 California counties and one in Oregon.

This month, California agriculture regulators launched a survey to determine whether the pathogen was in nurseries throughout the state. That was when inspectors found evidence of it at the two commercial nurseries in the Southland.

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