Town Braces for More Beetles

With the approaching one-year anniversary of the discovery of a southern pine beetle infestation in Northwest Woods in East Hampton, the town board is mulling its approach to managing the invasive species. 

The infestation resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency last October, which authorized the town’s Department of Land Acquisition and Management to cut down infested pine trees on both public and private property, the latter with landowners’ permission. Town staff was also authorized to enter private property to inspect trees and hire private contractors to augment town staff. Around 10,000 trees were felled to curb the infestation, Andy Drake, an environmental analyst, told the board on Tuesday.

This year, “We can be hopeful, or worry about what’s going to happen come October,” Mr. Drake said. He had been summoned to the meeting following last Thursday’s town board meeting, at which a resident of Swamp Road, near the epicenter of the outbreak, said that he had spent more than $24,000 in the felling or removal of pine trees on his 2.5-acre property and was now “way beyond my ability to pay” for the removal of still more infested trees. 

The town has adopted a “cut and leave” approach to suppressing southern pine beetle infestations, in which infested trees and a buffer are cut down and left on the ground. Beetles tunnel under the bark, blocking the flow of nutrients and killing the trees. To combat this, the bark is scored to expose the beetles to the elements. Private property owners are responsible for the cost of removing the trees, but the town accepts them at its recycling centers free of charge. 

Fortunately, Mr. Drake said, the situation is significantly different from last year. “We’ve made a really large effort in trying to minimize the spread since then,” he said. “This year, so far, we haven’t seen very much new emergence. . . . I think it shows that our efforts from last year have paid off.” 

The Land Acquisition and Management Department is “trying to stay on top of this and manage properties,” Mr. Drake said, pointing out that it offers inspections of private land. Since last September, around 480 properties were inspected, he said. Since June, eight private properties of 43 inspected have revealed southern pine beetle infestation. On town properties, 518 trees were felled since June. 

“Right now, we have 32 trees marked on town lands, which we intend to cut by the end of the week,” he said. “But so far, emergence has been relatively low.” Nonetheless, private property owners who are worried about the pines on their land have been advised to contact the town. 

The question for the town board, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said, is how to proceed. “Does it make sense to declare a state of emergency again to try to suppress the spread of the beetles, given we’ve made an investment and commitment to do that?” he asked. “I don’t know . . . if it makes sense to continue to try to suppress these little outbreaks. The resources that we might have to bring to bear might be much less and save us a lot of money, and residents a lot of money, over time, and prevent destruction of those large forest tracts.” 

Last year, two separate emergency declarations were made, spanning a total of 60 days. Mr. Drake suggested that, should the board again declare an emergency, “we should declare later on in the season so it can encapsulate the whole migration time period and reproduction time period.” The beetles go dormant once the temperature falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. “Last year, there were still trees being infested after the period we were allowed to do cutting. We were making recommendations, but private property owners were stuck with a lot of their own management.” 

The invasive species is now well established, Mr. Drake said. “This is a problem that has been a management effort and should continue to be a management effort. But I don’t know if it has quite that emergency feel anymore, because it is so heavily established at this point.”

The town has $47,000 remaining from a State Department of Environmental Conservation grant to manage the invasive species, he said, and a standing relationship with the tree company that felled trees last year. “There’s a really high potential to reach outbreak status again,” he said, but “so far, based on our inspections, we’ve seen really low numbers.” 

The infestation, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “was a predicted result from a warming climate. This creature did not live in this area, in this climate. Due to warming temperatures over all, it’s expanded its range. They’re probably going to have to rename it the Mid-Atlantic pine beetle.”