The incredibly invasive southern pine beetle was first extensively documented on Long Island last fall, and this year a broad swath of environmental agencies have united to combat the beetle in one of the most sensitive areas it could infest: the central pine barrens, more than 110,000 acres defined by the presence of one of the beetle’s favorite foods — the pitch pine.
DEC Forester John Wernet, who oversaw the thinning of infested trees in Henry’s Hollow Woods in Hampton Bays this past winter, along with DEC Regional Natural Resources Supervisor Rob Marsh, gave a tour of their work to State Assemblymen Steve Englebright and Fred Thiele and members of the press on the morning of July 15.
Mr. Englebright is the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation.
Mr. Marsh said the DEC’s Forest Health office in Albany is overseeing the incident command team, which includes federal and county agencies that oversee lands that are also infested.
“This problem is not going away. It’s going to be the rest of my career,” said Mr. Wernet.
The site in Hampton Bays, totalling 14 acres, is the biggest area to date where the DEC has cleared out infested trees. Between February and April, a team that averaged 4 to 5 DEC foresters spent 40 operational days cutting down infested trees to prevent the spread of the beetle.
Though the problem was first documented in the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley last fall, the foresters said the first southern pine beetle infestation they now have record of was reported to them by a landscaper who extensively documented dying trees that he had cleared in Napeague five years ago.
Southern pine beetles have been a problem in New Jersey for many years — they’ve munched through as many as 15,000 acres in New Jersey’s pine barrens in a single year, said Mr. Wernet.
It then appeared to leap past the five boroughs and Nassau County and began showing up in Suffolk County, Connecticut and now Massachusetts, leading wildlife managers to believe the beetles may have been carried here by prevailing southwest winds.
Mr. Marsh said there’s a possibility some were carried here on the winds of Superstorm Sandy. Not long after Sandy, the needles of many pine trees on eastern Long Island began to turn orange and then brown. At the time, the problem was attributed to stress from salt spray during the storm, but scientists now believe southern pine beetles could have been part of the problem.
Henry’s Hollow Woods was an early hotspot for beetle infestation, and Mr. Wernet said his team carefully demarcated the area where they found the telltale signs of the beetle’s presence — tiny pinhole-sized holes in trees, and, later, large sticky masses of sap that trees extrude in order to force the beetles out.
“Within three months a tree can be completely dead,” said Mr. Marsh. “The cold winter gave us some help. It slowed the beetle down enough for us to catch up to it. But they’ve never been able to successfully eradicate it.”
By felling the trees and leaving them in place, said Mr. Marsh, the beetles are cut off from their food source — the sap of the living pine tree — and they often then die from the dampness as the felled trees rot.