Why I Blame Wall Street for My Lyme Disease

Forest management is complex. In the past few decades in the Northeast, there’s been a lot of change.

An aerial view of forest along the Hudson River.
The Hudson Valley. Thinkstock

In August of 2017, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. To be honest, I was surprised it took as long as it did for me to finally join the growing list of those who’ve contracted the nasty illness. I teach forestry to undergraduate college students, which means I’ve spent the better part of the past 25 years roaming through the woods of New England. During this time, I’ve killed legions of ticks that I found crawling up my pant legs, over blaze-orange hunting vests, or down my collar. I’ve dug out dozens more that evaded my clothed inspections, not discovering them until several hours after they had embedded their evil little blood-sucking heads beneath my skin. But I’ve been fortunate, despite the persistent army of arthropods that continues to grow in numbers and expand into new territories. And incidences of Lyme disease recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have significantly increased over the past 20 years, yet I had managed to avoid contracting Lyme until just last year.

I moved to Maine in the early 1990s and started spending a lot of time in the New England woods. Over these almost three decades, I’ve noted some significant changes to the Northern forest, the woodlands mainly characterized by beech, birches, and maples that extend from Maine to New York. Some changes are stark and troubling, such as the widespread decline in moose populations throughout the region. Some are exciting, though ephemeral—like seeing a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes nest for two consecutive summers in a streambank in my backyard. But then there is an overarching enormous change, initiated by Wall Street and largely invisible to the general public, which is having significant impacts on our Northern forest and which, I suspect, caused my Lyme disease.

The pattern of land ownership in the United States is starkly different between Eastern states and Western states. The Western states contain an extensive amount of public land: national parks, forests, and wildlife reserves. Our Eastern forests, however, are mostly privately owned. Through most of the latter half of the 20th century, the biggest landowners east of the Mississippi were private companies, more precisely, paper companies. Companies such as Great Northern, Champion, and International Paper owned millions of acres all throughout the East, which were managed for a steady harvest of wood fiber to make paper. But by the mid-1990s, it made less and less financial sense for the companies who owned paper mills to also own vast acreages of forest land.

In 1981, paper companies owned and managed nearly 60 million acres in the U.S., an area larger than the entire state of Utah. But by 2005, that number had declined by 60 percent. This sell-off was induced by a financial accounting change during the late 1980s, specifically, in how Wall Street auditors thought timberlands should be valued. For several decades, timberland was cheap and of relatively little value, beyond what could be used to make two-by-fours or reams of paper. However, these auditors starting changing their assessments from accounting for just the raw natural resources on the land toward including the real estate potential of these forests. The result was that paper companies found themselves sitting on several million dollars of value that they had never realized they had, and the taxes on their newly revalued land were also going up. Coupled with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the effective tax rate doubled for corporate timberland. All of this swirled together to mean that paper companies really had no choice but to take their windfall profits and get out from under a crushing tax burden. So, they started selling their forest land, mostly in large quantities and over a relatively short period of time. The Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences outlines in great detail just how profound this shift in ownership was in the Northeast, in a report prepared in 2005.

Through sales and resales of the same acreages over about 25 years, paper companies steadily divested themselves of nearly all the acres of forest they had owned in the Northeast. The buyers of these acres consisted of a few different types, but in general the major type of purchaser would be the financial forestland investor—companies such as Plum Creek, Hancock Timber Resources Group, and Timbervest—which purchased the land with the understanding that the greater value of the resource was in its potential as developable real estate. These companies often negotiated supply contracts with some of the paper companies that sold them the land and kept feeding the mills in the short term.

The new financial forestland investors generally fell into two categories—timberland investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts, entities that first arose in the 1970s and then grew expansively as unprecedented amounts of forestland came up for sale. Presently, throughout the U.S., the largest private landowners are almost all TIMOs or REITs. While it might be tempting to believe that removing forestland from paper companies, primarily interested in growing trees to feed the mill, would result in improved conservation practices, this isn’t necessarily the case. Instead, these new owner types primarily saw forestland as a much more valuable resource and one that did not require more active forest management. The business models of these financial forestland owners were no longer guided by the relatively small profits that come from supplying fiber to paper mills and became increasingly tailored to the highest-value use of the land: real estate and development potential.

The difference in forest management between a paper company feeding its mill and a financial investor looking to capitalize on selling real estate is significant. For good or ill, paper companies were in the business of cutting trees and keeping their lands in maximally productive states. This meant they were continuously cutting a lot of trees and that the new seedlings that followed would be managed for rapid growth of select species. Undesirable tree species and invasive vegetation were carefully managed, meaning they were cut, girdled, or treated with herbicide. The Society of American Foresters, established by Gifford Pinchot more than 100 years ago, developed the modern science of forest management, and this approach works very well when the desired outputs are a long-term supply of forest products. But as fewer and fewer acres fell under active management, more and more acres were left to “natural” processes. In most areas, this meant dramatic changes in species composition and age classes. Perhaps the most acute change has been the rapid spread of invasive plant species in the Northern forest.

Biologists have long been concerned with the increasing prevalence of invasive species across all ecosystems, as they outcompete native species and disrupt their abundance and distribution. Several freshwater fisheries in the Midwest are overrun by introduced Asian carp. Zebra and quagga mussels, native to Eurasia, are now firmly established throughout the Great Lakes, threatening the entire food web in Lake Michigan. The Japanese vine, kudzu, has blanketed millions of acres in the Southeastern U.S., dramatically reducing biodiversity where the thick, dense vines prevent most other plants from photosynthesizing. In the Northeast, our chief concerns among invasive species are garlic mustard, common buckthorn, four varieties of honeysuckle, and Japanese barberry, all of which harm native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous vegetation. The initial concern with most invasives is that they outcompete native species. For invasive plant species, this means some or all of their fruiting, seeding, photosynthetic, and growth strategies are more successful when compared with native plants.

Another, less-considered threat of invasives is their ability to actually benefit secondary species. The framing of invasive species as the sole winner pitted against all other native, losing species is not accurate: While extremely successful invasive species do harm many other species, they can also bring benefits to others as well. And indeed, this is what has happened with the spread of Japanese barberry in the northeast.

Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), a small thorny shrub rarely growing taller than a few feet and sporting bright red, Tic Tac–size berries, is dense in the woods behind my house and widespread across millions of acres of the Northern forest. This barberry was imported, cultivated, and widely planted as an ornamental shrub in the U.S. up into the 1990s. However, after pushing its way beyond backyards into our woodlands and outcompeting native shrubs and tree species, it has been a target for eradication of plant ecologists and forest managers alike. It is now illegal to import, sell, or trade this species in Massachusetts.

Japanese barberry has been bad for several plant species in New England. But it has been a great boon to ticks. In fact, ticks have responded exceptionally well to certain conditions brought on by the reduced amount of forest management throughout New England woodlands. They primarily benefit from increased woody ground cover for both “questing” surfaces (the elevated twigs and leaves that come into contact with the legs of passing deer, coyotes, or unsuspecting humans) and for an improved micro-climate: increased humidity on the forest floor. As Carl Zimmer recounted in his 2013 article for Outside magazine, “The Rise of the Tick,” the barberry plant creates an excellent habitat that is conducive for ticks to find new hosts and to find shelter and multiply.

Just after July 4, 2017, as I tossed around in bed at night, I found myself picking at a sore, itchy spot on my left hip. Half-asleep, I continued to dig and pick without satisfaction until I woke up enough to realize that I was probably doing battle with a stubborn tick. So, I made my way to the bathroom, where I could get a hand mirror and get a better look at what small thing had roused me from my sleep. Like the Princess and the Pea, it was just a tiny critter but clearly a tick and fully embedded in my hip and providing enough discomfort to wake me up. Living where we do (a log cabin in the woods of Vermont), we’ve got a range of tick removal devices, but with just enough purchase from my middle fingernail, I was able to pry it free. I gave it a satisfying squish on the bathroom vanity before dropping it in the wastebasket. And like the countless other ticks I had encountered over the years, the particular memory of this one would surely have faded into some generic suite of encounters with all ticks except for the residual bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, left behind in my bloodstream.

A five-day-long fever, weakness, loss of appetite, and just generally feeling like crud combined with my complaining were enough for my wife to demand that I go see our doctor. After a series of blood tests and ultimately a positive diagnosis for Lyme, I was put on a prescription of doxycycline. And since this was my first contraction of Lyme, and since we caught it pretty early, and since I responded well to the antibiotics, I’m happy to say that I’m Lyme-free now. But honestly, I’m just waiting for my next bout, which I’m sure will come, as I have no plans to avoid wandering around the beautiful forests and fields of Vermont. Nor is there any indication that preferred tick habitat will be diminished in the near term.

Of course, ticks and Lyme disease both existed in the Northeast long before the large transfer of property from paper companies to financial forestland investors. There is no way I will ever know if this specific tick came into existence thanks to the newfound abundance of Japanese barberry or not. What is known is that the woodlands behind my house were part of a 1,000+ acre, single-owner, contiguous forest that was under active forest management until 1989. For the past three decades, this forest has been divided and subdivided into no fewer than 17 different landowners; forest management has been essentially abandoned, and invasive species have moved in. Also, it’s nice to have someone or something to blame for one’s misfortune, and Wall Street is often a convenient villain.

But as many past or chronic sufferers of Lyme will agree, this isn’t just my personal tale of woe. Incidents and reports of Lyme disease have been dramatically increasing throughout the Eastern U.S. and most particularly in the Northeast, over the same time period during which paper companies’ active land management has been replaced by the more passive management of the TIMOs and REITs.

It might be tempting to shrug off the increase in Lyme disease reports with a corresponding decrease in actively managed forest lands as a specious, inverse correlation. But these two variables are very clearly tied to a shared third variable: the epidemic spread of Japanese barberry. That our Northern forest is so different is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Change is inevitable and necessary to all natural processes. What we often lose sight of are wide-ranging changes from seemingly innocuous events. Why should it matter who owns forestland as long as it stays as a forest? It matters because how that forest is tended affects human health and well-being as certain as it affects both the tallest trees and the tiniest arthropods.