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Vandals Strike WSU Puyallup Research

PUYALLUP, Wash. Vandals apparently mistook raspberry bushes for poplar trees when they broke into a screen house at Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center here on the weekend.

But James Zuiches, dean of the WSU College of Agriculture and Home Economics, said the research facility they hit is used by Plant Pathologist Peter Bristow for research on raspberries.

“Apparently they intended to destroy hybrid poplars, which shows an ignorance of the environmental and economic benefits derived from that research,” Zuiches said.

“We have found poplars to be useful for pulp wood and for phytoremediation of chemically contaminated soils. Poplar plantations provide an environmentally friendly alternative for harvesting trees in ecosystems where endangered species may be present.

“Poplars have the potential for protecting riparian zones from soil loss and contributing to protection of water quality in salmon-bearing streams.”

University officials and Pierce County sheriff’s deputies scrambled Sunday to investigate the break in after WSU authorities received a fax of an e-mail message from someone claiming to be the Washington Tree Improvement Association.

Plant pathologist Peter Bristow said vandals cut their way into a 40×70-foot screen house where he was growing about 200 raspberry plants. They dumped about 180 on the floor and stomped on the root balls.

Bristow is trying to decide whether he can repot the plants and salvage the project. The plants were being grown for experiments this coming summer in raspberry fields where they would be used to monitor disease developments. This is part of an ongoing project looking at red raspberry cane diseases.

Funding has come from the Washington Red Raspberry Commission.

Bristow said the vandalism could cost a year’s research.

The message claiming responsibility for the crime asserted that WSU’s groves of genetically modified cottonwoods and poplars threaten native forests.

Hybrid poplars, also called cottonwoods, are like hybrid corn. Plants are fertilized with pollen from plants from selected lines with desired characteristics. This technology is more than 50 years old.

WSU and the University of Washington have collaborated since 1967 on research that produced hybrid poplar trees that are an increasingly important source of fiber for paper products and some specialty woods.

They effectively created a new industry. Hybrid poplars currently are grown on an estimated 50,000 acres in Washington. In western Washington they typically are grown on natural rainfall. In eastern Washington, hybrid poplars are an irrigated crop.

Dean Glawe, director of the Puyallup center, said, “There is no research being done at WSU Puyallup on transgenetic material of any kind. Obviously if someone cannot tell the difference between a raspberry plant and a poplar tree, they’re not doing too well environmentally. They’re going 0 for 2 so far.” Glawe had reference to an attack last weekend on the Avian Health Center at Puyallup. The Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for that break in, as a protest against animal research. But no animal research is conducted at the lab, which helps assure safe food for consumers.

“I have a lot of sympathy for the environment and for environmental causes. We’re obviously dealing with people who are really uninformed and unknowledgeable. Any true environmentalist would repudiate this sort of thing,” Glawe said.

Washington is the nation’s leading red raspberry producer, accounting for 68 percent of the nation’s production. The crop is worth about $30 million a year to producers.

For additional information on hybrid poplar research at WSU, please see this story.

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