Bob Wagner, a University of Maine forestry professor, describes Maine’s upcoming spruce budworm infestation as a slow-moving hurricane. The state’s large landowners, forestry experts and policymakers know it’s coming and can track its path south from Canada. They estimate the pest will start destroying forest stands in northern Maine within the next two to four years. And they know from previous experience that the damage to the forest products industry and, therefore, jobs could be extensive.

That is, if the state doesn’t prepare and then act.

So the University of Maine, Maine Forest Service and landowners with the Maine Forest Products Council are putting together a disaster preparedness plan. The document will hopefully be ready in the early summer and will identify the anticipated level of the outbreak and how the state can respond. The team is monitoring the insect, projecting how it will affect the wood supply for paper companies and sawmills, and developing forest management strategies. It’s also looking into whether legislation will be necessary to aid landowner response.

“We know that it’s coming, so we can’t act with surprise when it gets here,” said Wagner, who is director of the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit, formed in 1975 during the last spruce budworm outbreak.

That outbreak, which lasted from 1970 until 1985, killed 21 percent of all fir trees in the state by 1982, according to the Maine Forest Products Council. The defoliation of millions of acres of spruce and fir prompted insecticide spraying and spurred landowners to log large sections of forest before they lost all value. The response caused great alarm among environmentalists and led to the Forest Practices Act in 1989 to regulate harvesting.

The spruce budworm is the immature stage of a grayish-brownish moth. As a larvae, it likes to eat balsam fir but will also munch on spruce. Outbreaks occur about every 30 to 60 years, and the extent of the infestation depends largely on the condition of the forest. Usually, there are so few of the insects that they can’t be seen. But when trees get to an age where they provide the larvae with high-energy food and the number of insects grows larger than natural controls — such as birds, wasps and flies — the problem begins.

The state maintains traps to attract moths and gauge population levels. This year, on average, the population in the traps increased four-fold compared with last year, indicating significant growth of the pest, said state entomologist Dave Struble. The insect has been spreading in Quebec and New Brunswick for awhile.

It is valuable to have a plan to address the impending infestation. But in the end it will be up to landowners and the state and federal government to follow the team’s guidelines. People in northern Maine will most likely see the spruce budworm’s effects — brown, dry sticks for trees — as there’s no way to prevent the problem entirely. But Maine can learn from the past and mitigate the outbreak as much as possible. And it can inform the public along the way. Infestations typically last 10 to 15 years, so the response must be sustained. This slow-moving hurricane is on its way and will be here for a while.