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Loggers to thin pine barrens in bid to fight southern pine beetles

DEC forester John Wernet, left, assemblymen Steve Englebright

DEC forester John Wernet, left, assemblymen Steve Englebright and Fred Thiele, Jr., inspect a recently treated Henry's Hollow Pine Barrens State Forest in Hampton Bays. Credit: Randee Daddona

State environmental authorities are planning their first-ever sale of trees in a Long Island state forest to try to stop the spread of the southern pine beetle.

The potential sale of pitch pines and oaks to a logging company would thin just under 200 acres in the 5,700-acre Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest -- a popular recreation and hunting area at high risk of a beetle outbreak.

The beetles "love overstocked forests -- and all of Long Island's forests are overstocked," Jessica Cancelliere, research scientist with the DEC's Division of Lands and Forests, said at a research forum this month.

The DEC already sells timber in its upstate forests, but this sale, if it occurs, would be the first on its Long Island properties since the DEC was created in 1970, the agency said.

The beetle, which was confirmed on Long Island last year, moves rapidly through dense forests and can kill trees in a matter of months. It has been found in about 2,500 acres of federal, state, county, local and private lands here so far, and already has decimated thousands of acres of forests in the country, mostly in the South.

Matthew Ayres, professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, called southern pine beetle infestations "smokeless wildfires."

"The bigger they are, the faster they go, like a wildfire," said Ayres, who has studied the pest for more than 20 years. "They're contagious, like wildfires. And the bigger they get, the harder they are to put out."

Forest managers agree that the most effective way to slow the spread of the beetle is to cut down infested trees and healthy ones to thin overstocked forests that are attractive to the beetle, and the DEC and other land managers already have cut down thousands of trees.

But cutting trees is expensive: DEC regional forester John Wernet said his agency has received quotes as high as $2,000 an acre to cut down trees at Rocky Point -- meaning treating about 200 acres in the forest could cost the cash-strapped state agency as much as $400,000.

The potential sale could allow the state to avoid that cost by having logging companies pay the state to cut and haul the trees instead.

While loggers have been used to cut trees to slow the beetles' progress in other parts of the country, that option had not been seen as viable for Long Island, which has little timber industry to speak of.

"We've never done a harvest on Long Island," said John Bartow, executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association in Rensselaer, which represents paper mills, sawmills, loggers and haulers. Only two of its roughly 860 members are based on Long Island. "I think this is a huge test right now to say, can we get this done?"

Bartow said Long Island lacks the infrastructure to process large amounts of timber, making transportation to mills a key cost -- especially for a relatively low-value tree such as pitch pine, the type that makes up Long Island's pine barrens.

"That's a long way to transport a rather lower-priced commodity," he said.

Over the past few weeks, Wernet and other DEC staffers have been marking trees for sale on the Rocky Point property.

On Wednesday, he and a colleague spent a day in Stand 25 -- a thickly populated area in the Rocky Point forest off Wading River Hollow Road -- slashing blue paint marks across the trunks and bases of trees slated to be felled.

"That way, we control what the logger cuts," Wernet said. "We don't want them to go out cutting whatever they feel like."

The DEC will inspect and monitor the cutting to ensure only the trees intended to be cut are felled, he said.

The sale likely would be separated into three different sizes to accommodate different types of bidders, and would include pitch pine and some scarlet oak and white oak, he said.

The oaks would be included, he added, to help thin the forest and reduce competition for the remaining pitch pines, which provide vital habitat for several threatened and endangered species.

Wernet said he hoped to have the public bid documents prepared as early as the end of next month. But how much the trees would sell for remains unclear, and Wernet said he still was uncertain whether the sale would be successful.

"We don't even know if we will get bidders, but we're going to try," he said.

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), head of the Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee, said he had reservations about the idea.

"If you begin with the reality that DEC personnel are woefully thin in their ranks, and you give a green light for profit-motivated forest extraction, you have to be concerned that it might get out of control," he said. "And that there may be some harvesting that is self-serving, rather than serving the public interest."

But Ayres said he found the news of the potential sale "very promising."

"Without some kind of active management of the bark beetle, pine trees will become a rarity" on Long Island, he said. "And the pathways to prevent that would either be finding some economy from the forest products that can help pay for the active management now and in the future in a sustainable way, or tax money to pay for what would be very expensive."

He said he understood a sale of trees in public forests can come as a shock -- but, he said, it's a necessary way to combat the southern pine beetle.

"People aren't going to pay taxes" to cut down trees, Ayres said. "And the alternative is you don't have pine trees on Long Island anymore."


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