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Trees besieged by spread of southern pine beetle

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

Thousands of Long Island's pine trees have been cut down in an effort to stop the spread of a new, damaging forest beetle, but officials cautioned the effort likely hasn't eradicated the pest.

The southern pine beetle was first found on Long Island last fall. Its discovery has led officials scrambling to halt the spread of the fast-moving pest, largely by cutting down infested, dying trees during the colder months while the beetle is dormant.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said it cut down almost 2,500 infested pine trees over 40 days in Henry's Hollow Pine Barrens State Forest in Hampton Bays, one of the most heavily infested stands on Long Island.

"The hopes were over the winter to try and knock down some of the large infestations," DEC natural-resources supervisor Robert Marsh said. "We didn't have hopes we were going to completely stop the beetle. Once it's in a location, there's never been success in completely eradicating it."

An appetite for pitch pines

In addition to state-owned areas, the beetle has been found in trees on federal, county, town and private lands.

The beetle -- native to the southern United States and known as one of the nation's most destructive forest pests -- will attack all types of pine trees but prefers pitch pines, which constitute most of Long Island's pine barrens.

More than 1,000 infested trees were cut down this spring in the Fire Island National Seashore, said park biologist Jordan Raphael -- 692 pines on the William Floyd estate in Mastic Beach and another 375 in the Sunken Forest, a critically imperiled area that is one of only two such ecosystems in the world.

"The whole point of this is to save the pitch pines that are still healthy," Raphael said.

The felling included a 94-year-old tree on the William Floyd estate cut in an effort to save an adjacent white pine planted by the Floyd family in the 1880s, Raphael said.

But this month, Raphael discovered as many as 50 infested trees on the park's Carrington tract between Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines -- an area previously thought to be untouched by the beetle. "It could be a lot more than that once I'm able to do a full survey," he said.

Michelle Potter, refuge manager of the Long Island Complex of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said about 1,200 infested trees were cut down at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley.

Healthy trees were cut in the west side of the refuge to make the area less appealing to the beetle.

The success of these suppression efforts will become clearer in the fall, after the warm season when the beetle is most active, officials said.

"They're just starting to fly right now," said DEC regional forester John Wernet. "It will take this summer to see if any beetles survived from the treatment we did."

Lawmakers act

The Suffolk County Legislature voted this month to create a Southern Pine Beetle Joint Commission.

The commission will include state, county, town and other officials, and is required to produce a written report on the impact of the beetle on Suffolk County and an action plan with roles for each member within a year.

Legis. Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), who authored the bill to create the commission, said he wanted to ensure the problem was being examined regionally.

"It's intended to not only have us speaking to each other about what we are doing, but actually charging us with coming up with an action plan that we will all agree to," he said.

Owners of private properties affected by the beetle, such as Rachel Stephens of Hampton Bays, are concerned about how to cope with the expense of felling their infested trees.

Stephens said she paid to take down 22 infested pine trees, but another 30 dead or dying ones are still standing.

"We can't afford to have them all taken down," she said. "It's $500 here, $1,000 there."

Marsh said state authorities cannot cut trees on private lands.

"The hope is at least some of the people that can afford it can start dealing with the problem," he said. "As we get a better assessment, if there are [infestations] on private properties that appear to be spreading, we might have to look at ways to possibly help out some homeowners."

Even with the cutting, forest managers say they don't expect to eradicate the beetle from Long Island.

"We're fully expecting to find more southern pine beetle, and we're going to see it spreading," Raphael said. "By October this year, we're probably going to have other sites we're going to need to do some management in."

Potter said her agency will do weekly monitoring of the federal refuges this summer, with possible additional cutting in the fall if the beetle has spread.

"I think the assumption is they'll run out of habitat on Long Island," Potter said. "There's only so many pitch pine trees they can use."

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