Searching for forbidden fruit

TRUCKEE - You are cruising along westbound Interstate 80 at 65 mph when you see multiple lanes of cars stopped at what looks like a national border and customs facility. But you're only going to San Francisco for the weekend, not leaving the country.

Truckee locals and tourists alike are frequent visitors to the "Bug Station" - the I-80 westbound freeway inspection station that some motorists consider an annoyance.

But the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Agricultural Inspection Station in Truckee, one of 16 in the state, is actually trying to improve the quality of life.

When pests get into California's fragile agricultural industry and natural water resources, it impacts almost everyone - from the wine drinker, the camper and the burger-eater to the rancher, the farmer and the fisherman.

"People don't realize the importance of the job and what we really do," said Plant Quarantine Supervisor and Glenshire resident Dan Rudolph.

Inspectors say they sometimes have a hard time with Truckee locals who try to just cruise through without stopping or rolling their windows down. At one time, there was a locals lane but cars would speed through it too fast, Rudolph said.

"We're right in the middle of a busy freeway," he said. "For safety reasons, we really like people to stop."

He said it's nice to be greeted by fellow Truckee folk, and locals can get through in a more speedy manner if they stop, roll down their windows and simply say "Truckee" when asked where they're coming from or going to.

The station inspectors are trying to keep pests from hitchhiking into the state, and then running rampant.

Take the Glassy Winged Sharp Shooter, for example. This pest spreads bacteria by infecting every plant it bites - and officials are concerned with the destructive damage it's causing to California's grape industry, Rudolph said. The infection causes Pierce's Disease, and was found in a Rancho Cordova vineyard this year. The pest was originally found in the southern states, and got into nurseries in Southern California.

"A pest like this increases the workload that we do at our station here because every nursery truckload that come in is inspected," Rudolph said.

And then there's the Zebra Mussel, a pest that hitchhiked into the Great Lakes on a Russian cargo vessel in the late 1980s, and has the ability to take over water systems. The mussel attaches onto boats and is spreading into freshwater lakes in the Michigan and Ohio regions, Rudolph said.

He warned the pest could have serious impact on California waters.

As Rudolph explained, the central California agricultural region is isolated because it is surrounded by natural barriers: mountains to the north and east, a desert to the south and an ocean to the west.

The inspectors are trying to target carloads and truck shipments coming from known infested areas to keep unwanted pests out of the state.

"We certainly can't inspect every shipment of household goods that comes through here," Rudolph said. "We are not 100 percent effective and we realize that. You can only be so effective."

The station does monitor every agricultural shipment that passes through and requires trucks to provide documentation on their shipments, or the trucking company can be cited.

So how successful is the station in keeping these pests out of the state? Rudolph said it's hard to know exactly. The inspection lanes are busiest during the weekends, with all seven lanes open for westbound traffic on Sundays. With 80 percent of the traffic moving through the station coming from Reno/Tahoe, most travelers on the weekend are returning from vacations.

Besides dealing with the occasional angry traveler, Truckee's Agricultural Inspection Station employees are also subject to various on-the-job dangers.

The station in Truckee is the only inspection facility in the state that is located in the middle of the highway. Other stations, Rudolph explained, are located off of the highway and all traffic is directed to exit the highway to go through inspection.

A new facility is expected to open in 2003 next to the California Highway Patrol scales at the east end of Truckee and will be located off the highway. When the station moves to its new location, inspectors won't see as many Truckee locals and they will see less traffic. They will miss Bay Area traffic returning from Lake Tahoe via Highways 89 and 267, but will catch traffic from the east as they travel to Tahoe, therefore better protecting the lake, Rudolph said.


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