The bark beetle has claimed another victim but this time, it wasn't a tree.
The Gila County Board of Supervisors was scheduled last Tuesday to consider a conditional use permit by an organization known as The Bridge to Spiritual Freedom, which was planning to build an office, bookstore and retreat facilities on a 12.3-acre parcel of land in Strawberry.
The request was withdrawn, however, when the prospective buyers realized the extent of the property's bark beetle infestation and that, as a result, many of its trees are dead or near-dead and will have to be removed.
"This was the first time in my career of 34 years that I've had someone back away from a property because of a bug in the trees," said Terry Smith, director of Gila County Planning and Zoning. "It's scary. Trees are why people have been investing in the area. You lose the trees, and you're going to be living in the kind of high Sonoran desert region that we have in the southern end of the county."
Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen is worried, too.
"The bark beetle has already devastated the economy up here," Christensen said. "And it's certainly going to affect the recreational aspects of our economy, because who's going to want to come up and look at a bunch of dead trees?"
All signs seem to be pointing the Tonto National Forest in that direction, the supervisor added.
"There is speculation on the part of some of the federal agencies that they expect as much as an 80 percent beetle kill in the forest," Christensen said. "It would be a tragedy if that does occur. The beetle kill is going to be a disaster for us. It's already a disaster as far as I'm concerned."
Meet the beetles
More than 2,000 species of bark beetles, which are also known as engraver beetles, have been identified. The one that affects the ponderosa pines in this area is known as the ips bark beetle a shiny black bug about the size of a match head.
Both the male and female ips bore into a tree and form an egg chamber. The spines are used to push red sawdust out of the tree as they go.
After the eggs hatch, the larvae bore out from the chamber, forming a series of tunnels. The early indications that a tree might be infested include piles of red sawdust at the base of the tree and soft pink to reddish-colored pitch tubes about one-quarter inch in diameter in the top one-third of larger trees.
The damage starts in the top, or crown, of the tree and then works its way down, eventually killing the tree.
Thus far in Arizona, the beetles have infested 508,000 acres an area larger than that consumed by last summer's Rodeo-Chediski Fire. According to the U.S. Forest Service, they have killed more than 2 million pine trees and tens of thousands of acres of pi juniper and manzanita.
Gary Wittman, forest health manager for Prescott National Forest, has said the bark beetle infestation "could wipe out a big share of the pines in northern Arizona." Other forestry experts fear that the blight could eventually rival the worst insect infestation in recorded U.S. history when bark beetles killed 3.1 million acres of gray spruce in Alaska in the early 1990s.
It's the current drought that has made the forest incapable of self-defense. Normally when the insects attack en masse and bore holes through the bark, the tree fends them off by producing large amounts of pitch that floods them out. But the lack of moisture has inhibited the trees' ability to use that defense.
As a result, the ips are free to chew into the trees and lay their eggs beneath the bark. And once they are inside a tree, they are virtually impossible to kill and can even survive temperatures down to 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Insecticides containing carbaryl, such as several Sevin brands, have been found to be effective as a preventative measure for individual trees. The insecticide will bind in the bark and can persist throughout the beetle's active season. Treatment is most effective when applied in spring before beetle activity rises.
As beetles bore through the bark they will ingest the insecticide. If beetles are present in the tree before treatment, however, they will not be killed until they emerge because the insecticide on the outer bark of the tree. In these cases, the treated trees itself will probably still die.
Lost in inaction
Two disasters which are exacerbating the bark beetle devastation, according to Christensen, are the "absolute lack of action" by Congress and a political process "that's so cumbersome, so awkward, we simply can't get anything done in a timely manner.
"The only reason we have a quick response to fires is simply because we don't have to go through the Endangered Species Act to plan an order to put out the fire," Christensen said. "If we dealt with public land issues as we deal with fire issues, we wouldn't be experiencing these problems."
The supervisor does not view the immediate future with much optimism.
"I was hoping Congress would bite the bullet in this session and move on with some of these issues," he said. "But we've got the same old political quagmire going on that we've had for quite some time. We've encumbered ourselves with so many rules and structures; we've opened the door to every group, every individual that wants to get involved with the process whether they have anything to do with it or not from any standpoint that we've become almost totally inept to get anything done.
"As Nero fiddled, Rome burned," Christensen said, "and we're doing the same thing here ... The bark beetle is going to have a long-term effect. It's not going to be immediate; it will gradually creep in upon us, like a cancer."