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An anonymous group of environmental activists chopped down or girdled nearly a thousand cottonwoods and aspens at Oregon State University this spring, hoping to stop experimental genetic engineering on the trees.

Then in May, the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture went up in flames, destroying laboratories, classrooms, and years of research. Some professors suspect "eco-terrorists" started the blaze. A small part of the center's work involves genetic engineering of trees.

After the Oregon incident, the culprits said in an open letter. "The test plots of the Populus genus trees... were independently assessed and found to be a dangerous experiment of unknown genetic consequence." The letter accused Steven Strauss, the forestry professor leading the research, of turning poplars into "frankentrees."

Strauss heads a research cooperative at Oregon State that is experimenting with genetic engineering as a way to improve forestry Among its goals: to develop trees that grow more quickly, that are disease-and insect-resistant, and that are tolerant of certain herbicides, like Roundup.

"Why not take marginal land, that might not otherwise be used, and grow and manage it intensively so we can grow trees rapidly to satisfy demands for fiber," says Rick Meilan, the associate director of the consortium. "That way, we can preserve our native woods."

Meilan says researchers take precautions to make sure the engineered trees are not cross-pollinated with normal trees. And the researchers must destroy the engineered trees before they mature enough to flower.

"We're not denying that there are risks associated with this technology," Meilan said. "What we're attempting to do through research is define what those risks are."

Meilan accused the vandals of "trying to play on peoples' emotions. They want attention and sensationalism."

What they want, counter the Oregon activists, is a safe environment. "The expansion of GE from agriculture to industrial resource extraction, as with trees for timber production," the letter to Strauss said, "exhibits the slippery slope of biotechnology that is permeating every part of human interaction with the rest of the natural world."

Meilan is repairing the girdled trees with grafts, and the police and FBI are investigating the vandalism in Oregon and Washington.
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Title Annotation:vandalism incidents protest experimental genetic engineering on trees
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:No Man's Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature by Daniel B. Botkin $24.94.

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