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Tim Morris: Protecting the nation against imported dangers


Tim Morris inspecting container truck

Nov. 13, 2015 – Tim Morris (’00 B.S. forestry) doesn’t carry a gun, but every day he’s on the front line defending the United States against outside threats. Armed with tweezers and sometimes a flashlight, the agricultural specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) routinely intercepts insects, snails, diseases, and plant species that could wreak havoc with our ecosystems and agriculture. “My goal is two reportable interceptions a day,” said Morris, a 10-year veteran with the agency. “This class of pests and diseases poses a direct threat.”

While the vast majority of products entering the country are safe, even one hitchhiking pest or disease can cause significant damage to American agriculture. Each year, CBP specialists intercept tens of thousands of pests identified as dangerous to U.S. agricultural resources. Morris divides his time between Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where he checks passenger luggage, and the port of Baltimore, where he inspects containers, wooden pallets, and other cargo.

Morris carries a near-encyclopedic mental knowledge of global pests and diseases as well as import regulations for various countries. He also checks a handbook, and, at the airport, a specialized X-ray machine for detecting organic matter. As freight traffic into Baltimore has increased, so has the list of pests and threats. Not long ago, Morris made the first interception of a new pest, an Italian ant hiding in a shipment of ceramic tiles. “It was a species that lives deep in Italy’s forests, so I don’t know how it got into the cargo,” he said.

He has also found Chinese phragmite seeds that could choke out Maryland’s marshes, intercepted wood-boring beetles embedded in pallets, and routinely ferretted out forbidden fruits and vegetables in airline luggage. Morris identified the khapra beetle, one of the world’s most destructive pests, in a shipment of spice. The beetle consumes and contaminates stored food, causing illness in some who eat its tainted leavings. Khapra beetles can tolerate insecticides, making them difficult and highly expensive to eradicate. Luckily, Morris isolated the shipment before damage was done.

Morris credits his dendrology class at Virginia Tech with helping him develop skills for this job. “I wasn’t all that great in tree identification,” he said, “but learning to identify seeds and insect damage is an advantage here. It definitely helps to have a biological sciences background. Those are the people who are considered for a job like this.”

Morris applied for ranger positions after graduation, but wasn’t getting much response so he applied for the agricultural specialist job using the same government form. “It’s really worked out well,” he said. “I’m always active, always learning something, and the work is rewarding when I make interceptions. The constant feedback is nice.”

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