President Bush's ultimate contribution to the nation may still be unwritten, but in Bismarck, N.D., his place in history is assured: He will forever be known as the man who brought the gypsy moth to North Dakota.
Two weeks ago, as the President flew west to begin a cross-country tour, he stopped in Bismarck, the state capital, to plant a tree in celebration of the state's centennial. The day before he arrived, state foresters noticed unusual insects clinging to the branches of the 12-foot American elm. They picked most of the creatures off by hand, hurriedly sprayed the presidential gift with pesticide, then burned the burlap it had been wrapped in.
Politely, they avoided mentioning the problem when their honored guest arrived to hoist a spade for the official planting on the state capitol grounds.
Now, Smithsonian Institution experts, responding to a query from a federal wildlife official, have confirmed the state officials' concerns--the bugs were larvae of the gypsy moth, a voracious leaf-eating pest that has become a threat to many Eastern forests.
The story may yet have a happy ending. "We think we've got it taken care of," said Keith Winks of the Bismarck office of the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. All the larvae appear to have been killed by the pesticides and the tree--a direct descendant of one planted by former President John Quincy Adams on the White House lawn--appears to be doing fine.
And even if the foresters' eradication efforts have not succeeded, a key element of North Dakota's ecology may be working for them--there are so few trees in the state that the bugs might starve to death before they did much damage.
After all, said Winks, "the joke in North Dakota is that the state tree is the telephone pole."
As part of their centennial celebration, state officials hope to plant 100 million trees in North Dakota by the end of the century. That would be about 140 trees for every person in the state.