Killer of Oaks in West May Have Surfaced on L.I.

            By PATRICK HEALY

             Published: July 29, 2004

             OYSTER BAY COVE, N.Y., July 28 - A botanical mystery is playing out  at the Tiffany Creek Nature Preserve, here amid rolling hills and sprawling Long Island estates. A single red oak tree at the preserve has tested positive for sudden oak death syndrome, a disease that ravaged forests in California, and scientists are trying to figure out whether the infection is a dire beginning or a false alarm.

            Scientists with the United States Forest Service and the Department  of Agriculture are equally baffled and worried. Sudden oak death syndrome has killed tens of thousands of trees and cost governments and plant nurseries millions of dollars, but until now, it has only been found in trees in Northern California and southern Oregon.

            A knotty red oak tree standing in the preserve first tested positive for the disease last month, and scientists said Wednesday that they were running a battery of secondary DNA tests on tree samples to determine whether the tree truly carries the debilitating bug. Tests on trees in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire have yielded false positive results before, said Kerry Britton, a pathologist for the Forest Service.

            "I'm still hoarding the hopes that it's not really there," Ms. Britton said. "If it is a positive, they'll have to declare a quarantine zone around the area and declare an eradication effort. They'll have to cut down that tree and trees around there. It's up to the state to decide how drastically."

            Environmental officials throughout the Midwest and the East Coast  have feared an outbreak of sudden oak death syndrome ever since trees in California began dying from the disease in the mid-1990's. A funguslike pathogen called Phytophthora ramorum hops from plant to plant by riding rivulets of windblown rain, scientists said. It can lay dormant in trees for years, and then kill them within weeks, shriveling their leaves and transforming leafy trees into bone-white skeletons.

            Oaks are not the only trees affected. The disease has killed more than a dozen species of trees on the West Coast, and prompted quarantines of potentially infected plants from California. Steven Swain, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the disease, said early tests on East Coast oaks have shown them to be even more vulnerable to the disease than trees in the West.

            "If this gets loose on the East Coast it could cause quite a bit of  damage," Mr. Swain said. But for now, suburban New Yorkers have little reason to fret about their backyard trees, scientists said. No other trees, ferns or plants in the Tiffany Creek preserve have tested positive for the disease. Even the red oak in question shows few of the gruesome symptoms (among them an oozy, bloodlike sap) that accompany infection.

            "It's unlike anything on the West Coast," said Dr. George W. Hudler  of the Cornell University Plant Pathology Department. The story of how a single red oak on the North Shore of Long Island tested positive for sudden oak death, reported this week in The San Francisco Chronicle, begins with a California man named Ralph Zingaro wandering through forests up and down the East Coast, including the Nassau County preserve, looking for signs of infected trees.

            Mr. Zingaro's efforts yielded only false positive results, but   nonetheless drew hordes of federal and state scientists to the woods. It was then that scientists with the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service stumbled upon the red oak, and a sample tested positive for the disease.

            To be sure of their results, scientists took 60 other samples from  the suspicious red oak and tested any tree within 20 acres that showed a passing sign of illness, officials with the inspection service said. They expect the results of the secondary tests sometime next week. "If there's anything there, we're going to find it," Dr. Hudler said.