Scientists are messing with the genes of trees: Is it a threat to the environment or a boon?

PAUL SCHELL wasn't the only tree- hugger making news last week. At a biotech conference near the Columbia River Gorge, demonstrators showed up to decry the genetic manipulation of trees. The protests came just two months after the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) firebombed a laboratory at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture, where research into tree genetics is being conducted.

Genetic engineering (or GE) of trees is the latest flash point in the debate over scientists' ability to micromanage nature. The UW lab specializes in studying so-called hybrid poplars, created by interbreeding the 30 or so different poplar species. Last May, on the same day the lab was attacked, ELF operatives also torched an Oregon tree farm where hybrid poplars are grown.

"Hybrid poplars are an ecological nightmare threatening native biodiversity in the ecosystem," declared the ELF in its credit-taking communiqu鼯a>.

In some quarters, however, hybrid poplars are highly touted for their environmental value. One proponent, for instance, is former Washington Governor Mike Lowry. During his losing campaign for state lands commissioner last year, he said he wanted to start planting the trees on publicly owned land. Now, as head of a nonprofit organization called Enterprise Washington, Lowry is continuing to promote poplars as an ecofriendly economic development tool for distressed parts of the state, where farmers have been hit hard by falling prices.

"The hybrid poplar trees have significant environmental gains," says Lowry. "They're very good at taking fertilizer and other farm chemicals from the ground and keeping them out of streams. So they're great for fish." Hybrid poplars are also good at "carbon sequestration," or absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Other greens agree. "I think poplar farming makes fantastic sense," says Mitch Friedman, director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "Just like hemp, it's a good fast source of pulp. It's probably an improvement over cows and other crops, much better for streams." Friedman, a onetime tree-sitter and EarthFirst! activist, has written an essay for a forthcoming issue of EF! Journal in which he calls the laboratory bombers "morons."

Scientists involved in poplar research contend that the faster-growing trees could also relieve pressure on natural forests. Biochemist Toby Bradshaw, whose UW lab was hit by the ELF, told the Post-Intelligencer: "You could produce more wood fiber in a smaller area. This could leave more of the wild areas untouched."

But some environmental observers are unconvinced. "I wouldn't put any stock in that argument," says Rick McGuire of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society. "It's like the idea that by building [housing] density in the city we prevent subdivisions in the rural areas. In reality, you get both." McGuire notes that private ownership of timberland is so fragmented that having one owner plant a fast-growing tree won't keep anyone else from cutting natural forest. "It sounds like a very tenuous link," he says. Moreover, hybrid poplars and other trees that have been heavily bred to repel birds and insects don't provide much of an ecosystem, McGuire observes, adding, "I hope they don't start planting these in natural woodlands."

HYBRID POPLARS don't just exist in some test tube. There are nearly 100,000 acres of such trees growing in the Pacific Northwest, many generated through a joint research program of the UW and Washington State University.

One ranch outside Yakima grows some 31 different varieties. The manager of the ranch declined to be interviewed, citing concerns about the ELF. Frank Gomez, a tree dealer on the East Coast who uses the ranch as his supplier, says he's sold some 60,000 hybrid poplars in the last year to homeowners and developers, who use them primarily as a quick-growing source of shade, privacy screens, etc.

All of the trees are clones, Gomez explains. That's because the hybrids don't generally reproduce. Once a hybrid has been created—by bringing together pollen and catkins of two different species—the resulting tree is largely sterile. "The females put out millions of seeds, but they're not viable," says Gomez. "The only way to reproduce is with cuttings—you have to take a piece and put it in the ground."

For that reason, "You're not going to see hybrids take over native riparian areas; they're not good competitors," says Jon D. Johnson, Ph.D., who investigates poplar physiology at the WSU research center in Puyallup.

Like his colleague Toby Bradshaw at the UW, Johnson insists, "We don't do genetic engineering here." But the WSU center has also been subject to attack. One weekend in late 1999, nearly 200 plants were dumped to the floor and stomped on. WSU officials are convinced that hybrid poplars were the targets, even though the vandals actually destroyed raspberry bushes by apparent mistake.

WSU officials assert that the technology used at the center is "more than 50 years old" and is essentially no different from the selective and experimental breeding that has given us modern corn. Johnson says the aim is to isolate, for example, the naturally occurring gene for disease resistance and breed it into a hybrid. Poplars, he says, are used as a "model tree," from which principles can be extracted and applied to other species. He defines genetic engineering strictly as "introducing a foreign gene into the tree genome."

Opponents of genetic engineering complain that researchers are deliberately confusing the issue. "I think the commercial interest has always been to blur the distinctions" between what is classic hybridizing and what is GE, contends Jim Diamond, a Sierra Club activist. Diamond argues that GE trees are potentially more threatening than corn or soybeans because they are so "self-replicating." "Pollen can blow hundreds of miles," he says. "This is genetic material." The Sierra Club has taken a hard line, calling for "a worldwide moratorium on the further development and planting of GE trees." Instead of breeding supertrees to meet our rapacious demand for pulp, Diamond suggests attacking the problem "by lower-tech means, like putting a surcharge on junk mail."

Mitch Friedman of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance says that he, too, is concerned by the more "Frankenstein tactics" that are being developed, though he acknowledges he is no expert on GE. Yet he says he came away from a conversation with UW professor Toby Bradshaw impressed by his arguments. "Our four biggest crops are all exotics," says Friedman. "Nobody studied their genes before they were introduced, and they have tended to stay where they were told to stay." At the same time, he says, "Genetic engineering is a pimple on the butt of what is already a huge monster"—namely, the out-of-control proliferation of nonnative species like Scotch broom. "We're not pristine in this regard," he observes.

John Warinner, a Walla Walla plantation manager who is working with former Governor Lowry, says that, for his part, "It's enough to breed things that want to breed. Trying to splice a gene into a poplar so you can spray [the Monsanto insecticide] Roundup on it—I don't think that's necessary." By contrast, he says, "We're just putting pollen on a flower, and if God wants something to come of that, it will. I personally think that's as deep as you want to go."

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