A pine cone sits on the ground of the Pine...

A pine cone sits on the ground of the Pine Barrens in Flanders. (Oct. 20, 2011) Credit: Ed Betz

Long Island's pine barrens is a lush green carpet. But that beautiful expanse of forest -- so important to the animals that live in it, the drinking water beneath it, and the region's identity and economy -- is under threat. The southern pine beetle is moving in.

The beetles, each smaller than a grain of rice but a voracious killer of pine trees, have infested more than 1,000 acres across Suffolk County. They must be stopped, but it's a devilishly tricky task. New Jersey has lost more than 50,000 acres to an infestation found in its pine barrens in 2002, due to what critics say was a slow and insufficient response.

Infested trees must be cut down. In winter that kills the beetles, which are dormant then. In warmer weather, healthy trees up to 60 feet away also must be felled to stop beetles from flying to a new host. It's heartbreaking, but it must be done. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is about to launch a winter offensive against the beetles in a state forest in Hampton Bays and is seeking federal funds to defray expenses for the many other sites that need action -- another reason why robust funding of the DEC is so important.

The agency needs help in identifying infested trees. One sign: eruptions of sap as the tree tries to repel the beetles. Once they've attacked, needles fade to a dull green, then to yellow, red and finally brown. If you think a tree has been infested, contact the DEC.

Experts are not sure how the beetles arrived here. Some say warming climates helped expand their range to the North and West. DEC officials say the beetles have been on Long Island at least five years, and are so difficult to eradicate they're likely here to stay. That's unfortunate. The DEC must work quickly, and receive whatever resources it needs, to protect as many of our precious pines as possible.


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