What, or Who, is Threatening All the Pine Trees?
There’s an invasion of beetles going on right now on the East Coast and no, the invaders’ names aren’t Paul, John, Ringo and George.
The southern pine beetle aka Dendroctonus frontalis has made its way into the Pine Barrens or Pinelands of southern New Jersey, “almost certainly” as a result of global warming, says the New York Times. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection has been having workers cut down trees, in the hope that such will halt, or at least slow down, the insects’ northward migration.
As Matthew P. Ayres, a Dartmouth biologist who studies beetles, says, sacrificing some trees is necessary as “the alternative is losing the forest for saving the trees.”
How Global Warming is Threatening the Pine Barrens
Temperatures have risen (pdf) by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century in New Jersey. In the southern part of the state near Philadelphia, there hasn’t been a winter night of 8 degrees below zero since 1996. Such cold temperatures are needed to kill most beetles.
Once, the southern pine beetle (pdf) did not venture north of Delaware because it was simply too cold. The beetles are native to the South where they are always present there at low levels, subsisting on diseased or weakened pine trees.
Climate change has resulted in the tiny beetles (each the size of a raw grain of rice) migrating north and wreaking major havoc on millions of acres of trees in the western U.S. and Canada. The beetles bore into trees, penetrating into a layer of tissue providing nutrients and water. The trees end up starving to death, withering into a brittle, yellowish shell of themselves.
Such debilitating damage now threatens the Pine Barrens. These acres on acres of scrubby pine trees — stretching across seven New Jersey counties and with major highways including the Garden State Parkway running through them — harbor a unique ecosystem with sandy, acidic soil and diverse fauna including orchids and carnivorous plants.
Congress designated 1.1 million acres of the Pine Barrens as the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978 and the United Nations has designated it an International Biosphere Reserve and for good reason. The Pine Barrens represent the “largest remnant of a once-vast coastal pine ecosystem stretching along much of the Atlantic Seaboard,” as the New York Times puts it.
The beetles’ presence in the Pine Barrens was first noted in 2001, five years after researchers noted a definite warming trend in New Jersey. In 2010, 14,000 acres of state and private forests were destroyed. That year (which, anecdotally, I recall being a summer of days on days in the high 90s) seems to have marked a peak for the beetles.
While large segments of the Pine Barrens are protected, more suburban houses can be seen in the midst of what was once an endless forest. Groves of pines that once lined sections of the Garden State Parkway have been cleared in recent years to add lanes to the highway, in the hope of easing up congestion in the summer when much of the state’s population heads “down the shore” to the beach.
New Jersey Needs to Take Action to Save Its Trees
In New Jersey, the damage on the Pine Barrens has not been widely publicized in part because, unless you’re flying over the area, the swaths of damaged trees are unlikely to be seen (in contrast to in the West, where dying evergreens can be seen on mountain slopes).
The state has also been slow to respond to the beetles’ incursion in an iconic area. One state senator, Bob Smith, has pushed for a bill to manage the state’s forests through controlled burns and tree harvesting, in the belief that thinning out the trees will mean that the remaining ones are not stressed fighting for water, nutrients and light. The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club has opposed Smith’s bill, pointing out that it could open the way for commercial logging interests to commence operations in the Pine Barrens.
In the end, Governor Chris Christie vetoed the bill. Smith had introduced a provision that certification from an outside body, the Forest Stewardship Council, be required for any state forest plan; Christie objected to this on the grounds that New Jersey would then pass over “its responsibility to serve as the state’s environmental steward to a named third party.”
Meanwhile, New Jersey ecologists and scientists have resigned themselves to knowing that the southern pine beetle has become endemic in the Garden State. A few thousand acres of pines now disappear every year. Foresters fear that not only could New Jersey’s forests be devastated but that the beetles could start heading even farther north. With temperatures ever rising, Long Island and Cape Cod could be the next to see their pinelands infested with beetles.Will their politicians do the right thing and take measures to save the forests before it’s too late?
Photo of trees ravaged by the southern pine beetle via hspauldi/Flickr