By Kathryn G. Menu
Driving through Northwest Woods near Swamp Road, there is a sea of pitch pines marked with red plastic ribbons — a marker for the more than 2,000 trees that will be felled as East Hampton Town attempts to combat a growing southern pine beetle infestation.
The number of impacted pitch pines, located on both public and private properties, has grown since Thursday, when East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell formally declared a state of emergency in an effort to combat and control the infestation. On Tuesday, Scott Wilson, the town’s Director of Land Management, said at least 2,500 trees were a part of the outbreak, and said that number would likely grow as temperatures remain below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The threat of tree loss from pine beetle infestation of pitch pine forests is great where an outbreak spreads rapidly during certain times of the year,” Mr. Cantwell said in a news release issued Thursday. “…The Town of East Hampton has declared an emergency given the current outbreak of the pine beetle across a significant and growing area of the pitch pine forest in a part of Northwest and the threat to the outbreak spreading further.”
The emergency order acknowledges a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation warning that says, according to the town, “the infestation will continue to spread to other public and private properties that are dominated by pitch pines if not managed, posing the threat of creating an environmental catastrophe of tens of thousands of pitch pines being killed by these beetles.” The emergency order is in effect for five days unless otherwise amended, and according to Mr. Wilson would be extended as the town continues to combat the problem.
The emergency declaration allows the Department of Land Management to hire private contractors and work with other municipal agencies to cut infested trees on town properties to the ground, and score them — allowing eventual frosty air through the bark to kill the beetles. The declaration also allows staff from Land Management to inspect trees on private properties, and fell them as well with the permission of property owners, although private property owners would be responsible for removing the pines from their own properties.
Tree felling is the recommended management technique for combatting the southern pine beetle, according to the DEC. DEC staff were felling trees off Swamp Road on Tuesday afternoon. Other affected areas in East Hampton Town include small groupings of trees off Bull Path, Northwest Landing Road and Old Northwest Road.
“The beetles are not good fliers,” explained Mr. Wilson. “So when you cut the tree and create a buffer they cannot travel very far on their own.”
“Our goal is to suppress,” added Mr. Wilson. “As long as that tree is laying on the ground, we score the bark to allow the weather to get into the tree. Winter will kill those bugs and that is what we are hoping for — a nice frosty winter.”
The southern pine beetle is a bark beetle, only about the size of a grain of rice, according to the DEC. All pine trees are susceptible to the beetle including pitch pine, white pine and red pine. Hemlock and spruce trees can also be impacted in highly infected areas, according to the DEC.
Infested trees were first discovered in Suffolk County in 2014. While native to the southeastern United States, according to the DEC, the beetles range has expanded to the eastern seaboard with warming of extreme winter temperatures likely contributing to its migration north. Pine beetles are known to enter pine trees through crevices in the bark and then create S-shaped tunnels in the tissue just beneath the bark.
Trees impacted by the beetles typically die within two to four months. Signs of an infestation include popcorn-shaped clumps of resin on the exterior of a tree’s bark, shotgun-patterned holes in bark, S-shaped tunnels underneath the bark and reddish-brown needles of pine trees that have recently died.
While the beetles have impacted areas of the Pine Barrens in Southampton Town, Mr. Wilson said this was the first year they were detected in East Hampton Town. Private property owners that suspect pines on their land may be impacted are encouraged to contact the town’s Department of Land Management at (631) 324-7420 and arrange for a site visit.