Battling Bark Beetles On The Home Front

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It wasn't good news for the 300-plus capacity crowd in the Pine Community Center Saturday or for anyone else in the Rim country.

At center stage were a group of ecology experts providing a history of how the local landscape arrived at its current stage of extremely high tree density and how that density, combined with current drought conditions, creates a smorgasbord of easy eating for the notorious bark beetle.

"The bark beetle epidemic is going to run its course," said Christopher Jones, an extension agent for the University of Arizona.

"So everyone should go home and hug their trees goodbye," Pine resident Bill Hall said.

Hall may have been exaggerating, but not by much.

Northern Arizona's bark beetles are guaranteed to "change our landscape," Hall said, "but it will still be a pretty place."

A healthy forest, he pointed out, is one with lots of grassy areas in between the majestic Ponderosa Pines that are the Rim country's hallmark. Although their current overgrowth is considered a natural state, the bark beetle epidemic is a result of an unnatural state and Mother Nature's way of restoring order.

Consistently warm, dry weather weakens trees and taps their resources, encouraging the appetite and reproduction of the bark beetle. With so many trees in such close proximity, the beetles are undergoing a population explosion that its natural predators cannot keep up with.

"We have thousands of trees dying," said Ed Paul, a Forest Service spokesman.

"More than one-half million acres," John Anhold, also from the Forest Service, said. But because of federal bureaucracy, the pair explained, it will take a minimum of two to three years before the Forest Service can implement a program.

"We are in a better position to address the private land before the federal lands," P-S Fire Chief Paul Coe told the crowd bringing the focus of the meeting to the subject of how property owners can best address the bark beetle problem on their own lots.

The first step, Coe said, is for property owners to take action, to save any trees that may not yet be infected. The audience was advised to examine their own trees for signs of infection.

"Once the beetle is inside, he's bullet proof," Jones said.

During the inspection, look for pitch tubes and frass (boring dust), which is usually red in color and often found in the crevices near the top of the tree. These are the signs of where the invader has entered. As it takes several attacks to kill a tree, just a few pitch tubes or holes on one side usually aren't critical.

But once the tree fades from its emerald green to a lime green and on to rust, it's dead; the infestation has killed it.

According to Coe, trained P-S Fire Department personnel are willing to come to private properties, inspect the trees and offer a recommendation.

A property owner's goal should be to preserve trees that are still healthy, and to thin lots so that the uninfested trees aren't competing for light, water and food.

Jones suggested that property owners with average-size lots pick out one to eight healthy ponderosa pines to nurse through the epidemic, or more if they are less than eight inches in diameter at chest level.

This is accomplished by first thinning out the unwanted or infected trees and brush. Then, during dry winter months, water the trees every six to eight weeks. This will keep the trees healthy and stress free, allowing their natural defenses to build up.

Once infested tress are removed, clear any fresh-cut pine debris which could attract bark beetles to the area and threaten the salvageable trees.

Those property owners who intend to treat their trees with chemical agents, all the experts agreed, should hire a certified professional and always ask to see the label of the product being used.

"The individual beetle name will be on the label," Anhold said.

When asked if the Rim country could be declared a disaster area, perhaps freeing some federal funds to help landowners and speed up the process on federal land, Jones shook his head.

"Congress does not have the will to effectively address this issue," he said. "The only way that will change is if the voters have the will to address the issue."

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