The southern pine beetles are, by their very nature, a warmth-loving species.
When the beetles were first discovered on Long Island in Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley in the fall of 2014, Long Islanders were lucky when mother nature spent the following winter producing one of her best antibodies against southern pine beetle infestation: frigid temperatures.
If the winter of 2014-15 proved unseasonably cold, the winter that we have just emerged from was just the opposite, and that fact alone has foresters concerned about this year’s prognosis for the pine beetle problem.
Department of Environmental Conservation forester John Wernet, who has been overseeing the DEC’s work on suppressing pine beetles on Long Island, gave a talk about the pine beetle problem at the fourth annual Long Island Natural History Conference at Brookhaven National Laboratory March 18.
He estimated that the frigid winter of 2014-15 may have killed 90 percent of the beetles.
“We would be having a different conversation now if hadn’t had that winter,” he said.
Mr. Wernet said that, while that winter might have kept the beetle from infesting enormous acreage last season, southern pine beetle populations grow exponentially, and have the capability of rapid full recovery.
“Unfortunately, it’s here to stay,” said Central Pine Barrens Commission Executive Director John Pavacic at the natural history conference. “Once it infests a tree, it will die in as little as two to four months.”
The southern pine beetle, which is moving northward in the U.S. due to warming temperatures here, has destroyed more than 50,000 acres of New Jersey’s pine barrens since it was discovered there in 2002.
Mr. Pavacic said researchers working on the Long Island pine beetle problem have seen evidence it may have been here for seven years.
Since the first Long Island warning signs were noticed by the government in 2014, Connetquot State Park has lost 80 percent of its pitch pines. Foresters have thinned stands of diseased trees in Flanders, Hampton Bays and East Quogue. And researchers are keeping a close eye on the beetle’s progress burrowing its way into the Central Pine Barrens, 110,000 acres of dense pitch pines that provide the beetle’s favorite food source.
Mr. Wernet said the DEC and other government agencies have set up an Incident Command System, similar to the systems of response set up in natural disaster situations, for interagency coordination in attacking the beetle.
The Incident Command team is based in the DEC’s Albany Forest Health office, with foresters on Long Island taking part in aerial surveys of the vast swath of pines that make up central Long Island, implementing beetle suppression methods, and working on long-term projects like thinning stands of trees and prescribed burns to prevent the beetle from spreading.
“The beetle can destroy thousands of acres in one year,” said Mr. Wernet. “Suppression is like a band-aid. We need to create a forest environment that does not foster the infestation to occur.”
The DEC came under fire earlier this year for attempting to work with the logging industry to thin a stand of pitch pines in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest. It was an attempt by the DEC to partner with private industry to do time-consuming work that the cash-strapped government agency can’t afford to do on its own.
Private industry apparently didn’t think it was a cost-effective solution either. No one bid on the project.
Mr. Wernet said the property where the thinning was considered had been owned by RCA, which had cleared much of the land for their radio equipment. Pitch pines grow well in these disturbed areas.
Mr. Wernet said the aim of the DEC was to thin the trees from below, not to clear-cut the property.
“That would foster healthiest trees to remain,” he said. “The trees that are smaller are smaller for a reason, usually poor genetics.”
Mr. Wernet added that, in other parts of the country, thinned stands of pitch pines were much better at resisting a southern pine beetle infestation than unthinned stands.
The DEC’s largest project to date involved the felling of 30 acres of infested trees in the Henry’s Hollow/Munn’s Pond area between Hampton Bays and East Quogue.
Mr. Wernet said the goal with suppression efforts is similar in theory to the suppression of wildfires — removing the fuel in the path of the advance of the beetle, which usually follows prevailing wind patterns.
In the Munn’s Pond/Henry’s Hollow area, the DEC cut 2,800 trees in an infested area that was adjacent to 200 acres of uninfested trees.
So far, he said, there’s been “very little expansion” since the cutting was done in the winter of 2014-15.
In all, he said, the DEC, the National Park Service and Suffolk County have cut down about 8,000 trees in an attempt to stop the beetles’ spread.
Mr. Wernet said the foresters working on the problem are studying what was done in New Jersey, where a slow response to the beetle led to rapid deforestation.
There is currently no program available for private land owners to remove beetle-infested trees from their property, and pesticides that are approved for use on pine beetles must be applied by a registered pesticide applicator over entire trees before the beetle infestation is apparent.
This solution would be impossible to implement across the range of an entire forest, particularly a forest that stands on top of Long Island’s only drinking water supply.
“It’s a very complicated issue. There is no easy solution,” said Mr. Wernet. “The biggest thing we’re concerned about is that the pine barrens will lose their cultural identity. They’re the biggest pine barrens in the state.”
South Fork State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Assemblyman Steve Englebright, who serves as chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, took a walk with Mr. Wernet through the Henry’s Hollow woods last July to discuss the pine beetle problem.
Both assemblymen have pushed the state assembly to earmark $3.5 million from the Environmental Protection Fund in the assembly’s 2016-17 State Budget to develop and implement a comprehensive southern pine beetle management and control program. Budget negotiations are currently underway, and the final 2016-17 State Budget is due on April 1.