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DEC to sell Rocky Point forest trees in fight to contain beetles

Pitch tubes and a live southern pine beetle

Pitch tubes and a live southern pine beetle attack a healthy young tree in a forest in East Quogue, July 15, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

Thousands of trees in a Long Island state forest are up for sale to the highest bidder, as environmental officials test whether private loggers can be harnessed to help fight the spread of a destructive forest pest here.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation sale of trees on about 56 acres of the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest would be the first such sale it has held on the Island.

By cutting down some trees and leaving strong, healthy ones, the idea is to thin the forest enough to make it resistant to the southern pine beetle, which targets and kills pines and is impossible to fully eradicate. It moves especially quickly through dense stands of trees, such as those typical of the Island’s pine barrens.

Forest managers agree that thinning forest stands is an effective method of slowing the beetle’s spread — but cutting down trees is also an expensive option, leading the DEC to investigate last year whether it could invite loggers to pay to cut down trees on land it manages here.

This week, 4,212 trees in stand B-18 along Whiskey Road went up for bid: 640 scarlet oaks, 90 non-infested pitch pines and two white oaks, in addition to 2,510 hardwood trees and 970 softwood trees for pulp — all marked with bright blue paint.

The successful bidder also will have to fell 662 cull trees — trees that have been killed by the beetle or smaller trees that aren’t salable, DEC regional forester John Wernet said.

The minimum bid was set at $3,200, and bidding will continue until the morning of Feb. 11. The successful bidder will have until Nov. 30, 2017, to complete the job.

Since the pest was first officially confirmed on Long Island in 2014, it has been found on more than 2,500 acres of federal, state, local and private land here. But the 5,700-acre Rocky Point forest still has only a small infestation, making it a good candidate for preventive thinning, according to the DEC.

The oaks were included in the sale to help reduce competition for the pitch pines, which provide necessary habitat for several endangered and threatened species, Wernet said.

“What we’re trying to do is push for pine regeneration,” he said. “With this beetle, we’re looking at potentially losing pitch pine as a species in areas.”

The DEC sells timber on its upstate lands, but there has not been a sale on Long Island in the agency’s 46-year history.

John Bartow, executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association in upstate Rensselaer, said the cost of transportation to and from Long Island plus the low market value of the trees up for bid could make the DEC’s invitation a tough sell among loggers, even with the low minimum bid price. The Island does not have a timber industry due to its location and lack of logging infrastructure.

“It’s access to market and processing and transportation,” Bartow said, listing the factors a bidder must weigh. “If they’re going to try to get it to a paper mill, I don’t even know where the closest paper mill is going to be. If you’re trying to get it to a sizable commercial sawmill, you could be looking at Sullivan County.”

Still, Wernet said trees in two more stands in the Rocky Point forest will go up for bid next, for a total of about 180 acres.

While he said DEC has reached out to loggers in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, it still is unclear how many bids will come in — if any.

“This has really never been done down here,” he said.

But the sale is an important one for a cash-strapped state agency with no ready source for the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to fell the trees itself.

“I don’t know what we’ll do” if there are no bids, Wernet said. “We’re hoping we don’t have to go down that road.”

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