Tiny pine beetle gnaws its way through trees, fortunes, dreams

Value of lost timber in South Carolina expected to double record

August 07, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WHITE ROCK, S.C. - The rambling groves of loblolly pine Harold Wessinger owns near this small farm town were supposed to be a retirement plan. He had hoped to tend his 400 acres until the trees grew tall enough to sell to the paper mills, with the proceeds paying for vacations or, if necessary some day, nursing home expenses.

Instead, the trees have been dying by the hundreds, all because of a critter - the Southern pine beetle - smaller than a grain of rice.

"I'm in a downhearted, depressing state right now," Wessinger, 75, said the other afternoon, shaking his head at a heap of dead pines strewn like a wrecked ship across the gray, rocky soil. "It makes you say, `Why me, Lord?'"

It's a question being asked across South Carolina, where the beetle is strangling thousands of acres of pine forest in the widest and most costly infestation recorded in the state.

More than 12 million trees have died this year in counties spanning from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic coast. By the end of summer, the value of lost timber is expected to reach $200 million, nearly double the record set in 1995. Only Hurricane Hugo caused more damage to this state's vast forests.

Scientists say the East Coast's long drought is not only making South Carolina's trees more vulnerable, but is easing the beetles' spread north. The insects were spotted this spring, for apparently the first time, in New Jersey's Pine Barrens.

During the last big outbreak in Maryland, in 1993, the beetle killed 3,200 acres of loblolly pine on the lower Eastern Shore. Officials say it remains the largest threat to Maryland forests after the gypsy moth.

The outbreak in South Carolina has put intense strains on state and federal foresters and is trying the patience of small landowners such as Wessinger. Timber is the state's leading cash crop and forest products such as paper and saw timber its third-largest industry. So the infestation is also sending ripples across the local economy.

Loggers have been swamped with requests to cut down infested pines and surrounding buffers of healthy trees, one of the few effective defenses against the beetles' spread. That has glutted the market with wood cut before its time and has sent timber prices tumbling. The cutting has also made a wasteland of woods traveled by hikers and mountain bikers.

Forest managers, many at their wit's end, say their best hope is beyond anyone's control: the weather. Beetle populations will crash if South Carolina gets several days of 100-plus-degree heat, or, less likely, sub-zero temperatures.

In the meantime, Andy Boone, chief of forest health for the South Carolina Forestry Commission, continues to spend the summer mapping the problem from the air. He peers from the window of a small airplane, tracing the widening radius of the attack by the telltale reddening of pine tree crowns.

"It looks like a disaster out there right now," he said after a recent flight over Union County. "It's tragic, all the trees that are dying."

Systematic assault

The beetle, short-legged and stout, does its damage by boring through to a pine's inner bark, where females construct a gallery of S-shaped tunnels and lay dozens of eggs. The larvae feed on the moist bark. Then, as adults, they chew back to the surface, where they fly to neighboring trees for another assault.

Healthy trees release a resin that flushes out attacking beetles. But when trees are strained by drought, the immune system founders.

Thousands of beetles can invade a single tree, and their tiny tunnels block the flow of sugar from pine needles to tree roots. A fungus the beetle carries called blue stain clogs tissues that pump water to the treetop, turning evergreen needles to New England autumn shades of yellow and red.

The beetle is native to a giant tract of pinelands from the Southeastern United States down to Honduras. But a four-year drought has produced epidemic growth in places such as South Carolina and has sped the beetles' drift north during the past two years to Southern Ohio, Northern Kentucky and New Jersey.

"These are not areas where we're used to seeing them in recent memory," says Kier Klepzig, who leads a team of pine beetle scientists at the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Research Station.

In the past couple of years, the insects have moved into species of trees long viewed as outside their diet, such as the red spruce and Fraser fir. When the beetle population booms, their natural predators, the woodpecker and the checkered beetle, can't keep pace.

Hardest-hit state

Though the beetle has also ravaged Georgia and North Carolina this summer, no state has been harder hit than South Carolina. Experts also blame an ice storm two years ago that weakened many trees and stands of pine that have grown so thick that the beetle, much like a forest fire, has been able to spread at high speeds across large areas.

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