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Rare dwarf pines may be next victim of southern pine beetle, officials say

A pitch pine tree at the Wertheim National

A pitch pine tree at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley on Oct. 29, 2014 shows pitch tubes, or nodes of tree sap, which is a sign of the presence of the Southern Pine Beetle. The beetle species burrows into the bark and can be seen as the small black speck on top of the sap. Credit: Daniel Brennan

State environmental officials Wednesday discovered infestations of a fast-moving forest pest in small trees on Long Island, raising concerns about the fate of a rare stand of dwarf pines on the East End.

The southern pine beetle, responsible for the death of thousands of pines on Long Island, had been thought to mainly attack trees more than 5 inches in diameter.

But Robert Marsh, natural resources supervisor with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Wednesday found several small, young trees in East Quogue infested with the beetle.

"I haven't seen them that small," Marsh said as he surveyed the two trees, each about 2.5 inches in diameter and each displaying the distinctive rust-colored resin pitch tubes indicative of a fresh beetle attack. "It doesn't bode well," Marsh said.

John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Commission, said possible signs of the beetle have been spotted in a small section of the dwarf pine stand in Westhampton, which is one of only three such stands known to exist in the world.

Dwarf pines were thought to face less of a threat from the beetle infestation because of their small size, said Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

"We thought we were safe because it was too little to be picked on, but these beetles seem not very discriminating," Amper said. "So this is a huge, huge problem."

Thousands of pine trees have been cut down in Suffolk County in an effort to stop the spread of the beetle, which environmental officials believe cannot be fully eradicated.

State officials first confirmed the beetle, native to the southern United States, on Long Island last fall, though the pest likely has been here for years. Marsh said a landscaper saw infested trees in Napeague five years ago, which state officials have since confirmed to be the southern pine beetle.

The DEC estimates it will cost about $3.1 million to repress the beetle in the core of the pine barrens for one year.

Two state Assembly members who accompanied environmental officials on a tour through East Quogue and a state-owned forest in Hampton Bays Wednesday, where DEC officials appear to have halted the beetle's spread through strategic cutting, pledged to fight for additional funding for the agency.

"We need to make sure the DEC has the resources to manage and control this infestation," Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said.

"This is a very serious problem, and we're only seeing the beginning of it," said Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), head of that body's environmental conservation committee. "We're going to have to add this in the next budget."

In addition to state lands, the beetle has been found in trees in federal, county, town and private lands in both Suffolk and Nassau counties.

DEC regional forester John Wernet said the stand in East Quogue where the small trees were found had been free of the beetle just a month ago.

"Every time you think you have this beetle figured out, it throws you a curveball," he said.

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