EDITORIAL – Christmas trees: Bugs or humbug?

On Tuesday’s editorial page, we published in full Department of Agriculture Director Adrian R. Estwick’s lengthy response (1,186 words) to our Nov. 6 editorial regarding the restrictions and impediments his department imposed on the importation of Christmas trees.

We chose not to respond on Tuesday to Mr. Estwick’s response in order to give him a platform to make his case without comment or criticism from our editorial board.

However, now that Mr. Estwick has had his uninterrupted say, we feel compelled to address a number of his assertions that we feel were, at best, misleading.

Let’s begin with this:

Mr. Estwick wrote, “It is unfortunate that the Compass editorial team chose to publish an editorial based on hearsay without checking and verifying the facts with the Department of Agriculture.”

In fact, the Compass did attempt to contact his department when reporting the initial story, published a day before the editorial appeared. Those requests for comment and information were never responded to.

Additionally, when preparing Mr. Estwick’s letter for publication, our editors contacted the Department of Agriculture by both telephone and email to clarify a minor discrepancy in the letter. After receiving a confirmation of our inquiry, we advised the department of our deadline. To date, we are still awaiting any response whatsoever. Further, the Compass made two subsequent follow-up calls to the department’s land lines, which also went unanswered. Finally, we placed yet one more call to the cellphone of a DoA spokesperson who also did not respond.

Now to the specifics:

Mr. Estwick accuses the Compass of publishing a story and/or editorial based on “hearsay.” Hardly.

In the absence of comment from the Department of Agriculture itself, Compass reporters contacted, and quoted directly, multiple vendors who previously have imported Christmas trees to this island, most of whom were no longer doing so.

Trees4Life’s response was typical. They canceled their annual Christmas tree sale for charity because the DoA’s directive came “too late in the season.” Other importers specifically cited shifting regulations as the reason they will not be importing live trees this year.

It takes six to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree for harvest. Christmas has been celebrated on Dec. 25 since 336 A.D. As Mr. Estwick himself wrote, the DoA has recorded interceptions of pests in shipments of trees since at least 2015.

More to the point, DoA should have known upon discovering “live pests” in last year’s shipments that an alternative strategy was needed. Yet, the department did not update rules for importing fresh Christmas trees until May, nor did it share those rules with importers until June.

We do not fault Mr. Estwick, or his department, for being zealous in their mission to keep these islands free of invasive species, insects or other undesirable critters.

However, we must ask whether the DoA’s “zero tolerance” policy toward bugs in Christmas trees also applies to their remit to control the feral dogs and cats that plague our islands.

We would also point out that the DoA’s record on animal cruelty cases is well documented – and shameful. A Compass investigation revealed that out of more than 100 cases investigated by the DoA in 2016 and 2017, the department forwarded exactly one case for criminal prosecution.

Mr. Estwick can write as many words as he wishes, but the important quantitative measure is not words but Christmas trees.

This year, only 1,500 Christmas trees will be available for sale in Cayman, half the number of the previous year.

Something is clearly wrong here, and Mr. Estwick and his department need to figure out what it is and fix it …

Noel, Noel!