Friday, December 01, 2000

Beetles devastating E. Ky. pines

Experts say little can be done to stop them

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        WHITESBURG, Ky. — Nearly half of the trees that gave Pine Mountain its name have been killed by an invasion of southern pine beetles that are pushing northeastward through the Appalachians.

        The rice-sized insects have browned evergreens along more than 120 miles of Kentucky's border with Tennessee and Virginia, and appear to be heading for West Virginia, said Diana Olszowy, environmental control manager for the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

        “We are locating the landowners and giving them information on what they can do,” Ms. Olszowy said Thursday.

[photo] Southern pine beetles leave distinctive trails as they eat along the tree trunk.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
        The damage is obvious along the state-designated scenic route across Pine Mountain south of Whitesburg, where the customary wintertime greenery no longer exists.

        An infestation in the Daniel Boone National Forest has grabbed headlines in Kentucky for months, but the problem persists on private land and in state forests as well.

        The U.S. Forest Service has spent $750,000 to combat the insects this year. And Congress has appropriated $12.5 million to combat insect infestations, including the pine beetles, next year.

        Ms. Olszowy said the spread has stopped for the winter as the beetles burrow deep for refuge from the cold. A severe winter could kill the insects and stop more trees from being killed.

        “The forests will recover from this,” she said. “It's not a total annihilation of any pine species. It won't result in that.”

        Still, the aesthetic damage is unwelcome in places like Pine Mountain State Resort Park in Bell County, where naturalist Dean Henson said 40 to 50 percent of the pines have been killed. The insects chew their way into loblolly, yellow and Virginia pine trees to lay their eggs. As those eggs hatch, the larvae chew their way along in the tree truck. When the larvae reach insect stage, they simply fly to a nearby tree.

        The most effective way to stop the spread of the insects, which can fly only short distances, is to cut swaths about 100 feet wide around infected trees.

        “In state parks and nature preserves, that's not a very practical way of controlling them,” Mr. Henson said.

        He said park offices have decided to let the epidemic run its course, cutting the dead trees only when they pose a risk of falling across roads.

        “The pine beetle is a natural occurrence and a native phenomenon. It's a normal cycle in eastern deciduous forests,” Mr. Henson said. “Once a tree has been infected, there's little you can do to stop them. It's going to die. Usually, by the time you realize a tree has been attacked, it's too late.”

        The infestation has been confirmed in 13 counties — Bell, Clay, Clinton, Cumberland, Harlan, Knox, Laurel, Leslie, McCreary, Pulaski, Russell, Wayne and Whitley.

        Ms. Olszowy said she thinks the insects have made their way into two more counties — Pike and Floyd — on the West Virginia border. Biologists also were checking reports of the beetles in Bath and Morgan counties Thursday.

        “We need a really bad winter to stop them,” Ms. Olszowy said.

        In McCreary and Whitley counties, biologists fear the beetles are threatening the future of the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered bird that nests in live pine trees.

        Earlier this year, officials at the Daniel Boone National Forest found 22 nests of red-cockaded woodpeckers, the largest number in years.

        The forest officials tried to stop the infestation and save the woodpecker's habitat by cutting and removing infected trees near nests. But those efforts were largely unsuccessful.

        The birds are the only type of woodpecker in North America that nests exclusively in living pine trees. Forest officials estimate that only 4,000 are left nationwide, although other estimates put the number as high as 12,500.

        In South Carolina, pine beetles have killed about 1.5 million trees, causing more than $24 million in estimated losses.


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