By Edward Colimore – Philly.com
Great swaths of pines have turned brown and begun dropping needles. In aerial photos, they appear like ugly tentacles in the green forest, a sure sign the Southern pine beetle is on the march.
New Jersey has the most severe beetle outbreak in the country, said the nation’s leading expert on the insect, Ron Billings, manager of forest health for the Texas Forest Service, who has surveyed and photographed the damage.
Dendroctonus frontalis devoured 14,000 acres of pines last year and is expected to devastate at least another 14,000 this year, state officials said.
But help is on the way.
The state Department of Environmental Protection this week was awarded a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to begin “an integrated approach toward controlling” the beetles, department spokesman Larry Hajna said.
The DEP has been trying to tamp down hot spots where the insects are active, Hajna said. It has cut down trees in Wharton State Forest to disorient the beetles and larvae, and prevent them from spreading.
The extra federal funding, though, will help forestry officials step up efforts through controlled burning and thinning, and through education programs.
Controlled burns have been used to clear undergrowth that competes with the pines for water and nutrients, Hajna said. Now the burns can serve a dual purpose, eliminating not only the undergrowth but the beetles, too.
“This will lead to the regeneration of a healthy forest,” Hajna said. “We’ll place an extra emphasis on areas threatened by the beetles.”
More efforts are needed, though, said Billings, who visited New Jersey last week to monitor the infestation.
“We’re encouraging more active control,” he said. “New Jersey is the focus of [the beetle's] activity.
“You have to treat the expanding infestations,” he said. “I would recommend a cut-and-remove program for private lands and a cut-and-leave program for public lands.”
Billings, who has studied the Southern pine beetle for 38 years, said the state must make an emergency declaration that streamlines the permitting process so trees can be more quickly felled on public and private lands.
The beetle problem would be under control if the state had taken a more aggressive stance in 2003, said Bob Williams, a certified forester and vice president of forestry operations for Land Dimensions Engineering, a Glassboro firm that manages tens of thousands of private forested acres.