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Tree sale to stop southern pine beetle spread on LI fails

A blue mark on a tree indicates that

A blue mark on a tree indicates that it's for sale on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. A proposed sale of thousands of trees on Long Island went without a single bidder last week. Credit: Ed Betz

A proposed sale of thousands of trees — the first in a Long Island state forest — went without a single bidder last week.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation had been eyeing the sale as a potential way to deal with the southern pine beetle, a destructive forest pest that so far has been found on more than 2,500 acres on Long Island.

But several state legislators issued a statement last week, saying the sale was “inappropriate” and vowing to find state money to tackle the problem instead.

Cutting down infected and healthy trees to lessen the density of forests is considered one way to slow the spread of the beetle, which targets mostly pines.

But felling trees is also an expensive option — leading environmental authorities at the cash-strapped agency to investigate whether private loggers could be induced to take down the trees for a small fee.

Last month, 4,212 trees — including scarlet oaks, uninfested pitch pines and white oaks — on about 56 acres of the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest were listed for sale, with a minimum bid of $3,200.

The state had not received any bids for the job by the deadline Thursday.

It would have been the first sale of trees in a Long Island state forest since the DEC was created in 1970. There is no logging industry or infrastructure to speak of on Long Island, making the venture an uncertain one at the start, an industry expert has said.

It was unclear whether the state would continue listing trees on other tracts for sale now that the first sale was unsuccessful.

The DEC did not answer questions about the sale, but instead issued a statement saying it was “developing our specific next steps to continue our aggressive fight against the southern pine beetle infestation and implement our comprehensive southern pine beetle management plan through suppression and forest thinning.”

On Thursday, three state legislators issued a statement opposing the sale and saying the thinning of the Rocky Point forest “must be rejected.”

“There is no substantial evidence to suggest that the cutting of these trees will in the near term improve the ability of our pitch pines to withstand and fight off the southern pine beetle,” said the statement, issued by Assembly members Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), and state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

“You don’t take down trees that you don’t need to take down,” LaValle said in an interview Friday, adding he was concerned about the idea of cutting down healthy trees. “You deal with things with a scalpel, not a shotgun.”

The legislators went on to say they planned to request $3.5 million in the next state budget for suppression and management techniques to deal with the beetle.

“We would like to see the agency use that money to confront infested areas,” and not focus on unaffected stands, Englebright said.

The DEC had estimated last year it would cost about $3.1 million to suppress the beetle on Long Island for one year.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said he had opposed the sale and the idea of thinning healthy trees.

“I think the DEC is now compelled to address the beetle epidemic rather than getting into the tree-sale business,” he said.

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