Pa. lawmakers on spotted lanternfly: 'We have an epidemic'

Business owners tell of insect's impact on them

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Calling it an epidemic that threatens to harm Pennsylvania's economy, state lawmakers vowed Wednesday to fight the spotted lanternfly on all fronts.

The state Senate and House Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees held a joint hearing on the invasive insect in Harrisburg on Wednesday.

Berks County state Sen. Judy Schwank, a Democrat who serves as minority chair of the Senate's committee, said she requested the meeting because more needs to be done to stop the spotted lanternfly's spread.

"We have a huge problem on our hands. We're going to need a lot of resources... We can't afford to lose these folks," said Schwank, referring to business owners who have already been impacted by the pest. "They're a big part of our economy."

Much of Schwank's district has been epicenter of the spotted lanternfly's destructive impact since it made its first U.S. appearance in Berks County in 2014.

The insect, which is native to China, India, and Vietnam, threatens a number of agriculture industries, including grape, tree fruit, plant nursery, hops, and logging.

"I don't know that next year I'll be in business," said Calvin Beekman, the owner of Beekman Orchards, a fourth-generation farm that grows apples, peaches, nectarines, and wine grapes in Pike Township, near Boyertown.

Beekman, one of two Berks County business owners to testify Wednesday, told the lawmakers that he has witnessed first-hand the spotted lanternfly's growth on his property over the last three years.

"We have an epidemic," said state Rep. Eddie Pashinski, the Democratic chair of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. "So, if were were approaching this as a human epidemic, it may provide a little more sense of urgency."


Pashinski, who represents an area in and around Wilkes-Barre that has yet to see the spotted lanternfly, said that urgency should come from the negative impact the insect poses on the economy as it continues to spread across the state and beyond.

"We did have visitors from Erie come to our vineyard last week," said Marianne Lieberman, owner, Maple Springs Vineyard in Washington Township, near Bechtelsville. "They're very, very concerned about what's coming their way."

Methods to suppress the insect's existing population can include tree removal, herbicide treatments, and pesticide treatments.

"It will be aggressive, it will be comprehensive, it will have to include, I think, more on the community outreach and engagement... but even with all of that, this is a major threat, and we don't have a good answer," said Russell Redding, the state's agriculture secretary.

Experts on the panel, however, cautioned that the focus of efforts to combat the spotted lanternfly's spread needs to be on the outer edges, where the insect can still be stopped.

"Our goal is not exclude the high volumes [of spotted lanternflies] on the inside, but if we don't do a better job controlling the leading edge, it's not going to matter what's going on on the inside, because the inside is going to be the state of Pennsylvania, you know, the rate of spread that we're seeing over time, so we have to find a way to contain it first," said Matthew Rhoads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Efforts to stop the spread have included restricting the movement of certain articles by quarantining areas where the spotted lanternfly already exists. As of Wednesday, more than 120 municipalities in Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lehigh, Montgomery, and Northampton counties are under quarantine, including the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Reading.

But, officials said, much more still needs to be done. Redding said the state has already requested $20 million in federal assistance, but the need will likely be double that amount in order to build an evolving strategy that will effectively combat the threat.

"You're talking about a $40 million commitment, that we got to figure out how to do this," Redding told the lawmakers. "And we all understand real-time discussions about what the budget limitations are, but as you hear, that will be a loss of a piece of Berks County, alone, economically."

And that is a concern that has spread well beyond the region's agriculture industry. Just ask state Rep. David Maloney, a Republican who represents the Boyertown area of eastern Berks County, where the spotted lanternfly first appeared three years ago.

"I, for the first time in the seven years that I've been here, have had my constituency override the property tax issue by an invasive bug," he told his colleagues. "So, that's pretty significant when you know where I come from."

Whatever is done, both lawmakers, agriculture officials, and business owners agreed that time is running out to find a solution.

Schwank closed the hearing by suggesting that the committees consider convening again in January.

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