County Commissioner David Brock Smith — soon to be sworn in as a state representative — has teamed up with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley to co-convene the Sudden Oak Death Solutions Task Force approved by the state earlier this year.

“This is huge,” Smith said of having a senator in his corner.

The state of Oregon created the task force last legislative session to address the growing spread of SOD, which, if allowed to go unchecked, could devastate the Oregon agriculture industry.

It first entered Curry County in 2001 from Northern California and has made a slow but steady march to the north and northeast. Fifteen years ago the area of general infestation had consumed 9 square miles. Today, it encompasses 515 square miles, almost a third of the county.

SOD is spread via waterways from infected trees, and can affect more than 120 plants, including the state’s beloved rhododendron, Douglas fir, ferns and berries. The only effective treatment is annual injections of a phosphate — and the sheer number of trees, much less the lack of money, precludes that.

Another option is to create a clear zone between infected and pathogen-free trees by clearcutting a break in the woods up to 600 yards wide in SOD’s path.

Currently, the quarantine area extends from Gold Beach and 13 miles east along the Rogue River, dog-legs south and east to the border to a point about two-thirds of the way to the Josephine County line and west to the coast.

An area within it, comprising much of the Brookings area, is considered generally infested and is not being actively treated anymore.

Curry and the world

At its current rate, the spread of the tanoak disease could reach Coos Bay in 12 years and shut down all international port activity there, Smith told county commissioners Wednesday at a regular meeting.

It couldn’t come at a worse time, as money is being invested in that port to develop economic opportunities.

Smith helped cranberry farmers here — Curry and Coos County grow about 99 percent of the state’s cranberry harvest — by getting a phytosanitation regulation changed. That change now allows frozen cranberries to be shipped to China.

The Port of Coos Bay recently started taking on ships being diverted from a Port of Portland terminal that was just shut down; their other options were to dock in Vancouver, Washington or Oakland, California.

Additionally, the federal government has invested millions of dollars into the area’s rail system to improve the economy there, and more dredging funds will allow even larger cargo ships to dock at the port.

If SOD reaches Coos County, however, much of those exports could suddenly be banned from transport to other nations, Smith said.

“This could be the biggest economic issue we have in Southwest Oregon,” Smith said. “The potential devastation it could have on our economies is incredible.”

He cited the state’s iconic tree, the Douglas fir, as an example.

“Once the quarantine zone expands, the Douglas fir is useless as a resource,” Smith said. “The cost of mitigating the spore would be greater than the processing of the product. If SOD gets into that market, we won’t be able to export all the lumber that’s coming out of the Port of Coos Bay.”

California, too, suffers from SOD infestation, albeit with far more square miles and at a faster rate of spread. Scientists there recently said its spread is unstoppable.

Smith has been trying to get the attention of state officials for years about the potential financial impacts to the agriculture, nursery and timber industries. The creation of the task force this summer was one coup.

This summer, Smith secured $250,000 from the state to address SOD with the new task force.

About $100,000 will be dedicated to the Oregon Department of Forestry for treatment within the quarantine area, and another $100,000 will be dedicated to attack it from outside the zone.

The remainder, a $50,000 block grant, will be used by the Association of Oregon Counties to manage the task force, convene local stakeholders, discuss treatment methods and as leverage for federal grants for additional funding.

“This is the first time ever there’s been a block grant from state funds to the AOC,” Smith said in October. “It shows the importance of the task force, but also the work needed to get it done.”

Having Merkley co-convene the task force is a second blessing, he said, noting that the senator can increase awareness of the economic implications of SOD — and help secure federal funds to eradicate it — in the national arena.