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Forestry Officials Fighting Largest Pine Beetle Outbreak in 16 Years

By Daniel Cherry | Published 20 Aug 2012 06:44pm | comments
Mississippi is facing the largest outbreak of the Southern Pine Beetle in nearly 20 years, and the state Forestry Commission says the infestation could wreak havoc on the state's timber industry. MPB's Daniel Cherry reports how forestry officials are doing all they can to keep the bugs at bay.
Deep in the Homochitto National Forest in Southwest Mississippi, Dave Chabreck with the U.S. Forest Service in Franklin County, is looking for pine beetles in some infested trees.
As Chabreck pulls a chunk of bark loose from the tree, the underside is riddled with tracks left by the beetles as they eat their way through the pine.
"Chabreck: These galleries, these S shaped galleries, that's where the adults bore in...that's a pine beetle right there.
Cherry: There a lot smaller than what I expected them to be.
Chabreck: Oh yeah. They're just little small beetles, but again, there's just millions of them."
It's an unwelcome sight, growing more common in Southwest Mississippi. Randy Chapin is State Forest Health Coordinator with the Mississippi Forestry Commission. At the field office in Brookhaven, Chapin points out the affected areas on a huge map...they show up as multi colored dots.
"Every dot on this map was an active spot found by the air. You're looking at 500 spots on the Homochitto National Forest."
Forestry officials monitor for pine beetles every year but they say nothing gave them any indication the outbreak would blow up like it has, and it's showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, the infestation is twice as bad as initially thought. 
"Back in March the Forest Service told me they flew this land here and there wasn't a spot anywhere. Almost overnight they have just exploded in Southwest Mississippi."
The U.S. Forest Service along with the Mississippi Forestry Commission is doing weekly flyovers to look for affected trees. As the beetles kill the pines, the needles lose their green coloring and turn a reddish hue...easily visible from the air. There are nearly 500 marked areas in the Homochitto Forest and about 160 more on private and state lands.
"If left unchecked and unstudied, these beetles can wreak havoc with the forest industry", says Dr. John Riggins, a Forest Entomologist with Mississippi State University.
"And over the years, they have a very good track record of causing large amounts of damage to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of acres."
Forestry officials are working to protect Mississippi's timber industry which has an estimated 17 billion dollar economic impact. The Southern Pine Beetle is a native species, but Mississippi hasn't seen an outbreak in 16 years. 
"In the past it had periodic outbreaks to the tune of about every 6-9 years and potentially, if left unmanaged can kill thousands of acres of trees very easily."
That's why foresters in the Homochitto National Forest like Dave Chabreck are taking the fight to the beetles. When an infested area is spotted, foresters cut down all the pines nearby, preventing the beetles from spreading. 
"The timber that the pine beetles are already in, you've basically lost it. What you're trying to do is to reduce the risk of losing additional forest."
So far this year, about 800 acres of pine trees have been lost in the Homochitto Forest, and those dead trees will just lie on the ground. Randy Chapin with the Mississippi Forestry Commission says structurally the timber is fine, but the beetles turn the wood blue, and because demand for timber is sluggish sawmills won't take the discolored pine.
"You don't have the number of loggers that you used to. You don't have the markets like you used to. The market is really depressed. They don't want blue stained wood most of the time so its not a good situation all around for the landowners or the forest service."
The Forestry Commission offers services, free of charge, to landowners in each county to assess infestations and advise how to control spread of the beetles. As foresters review the damage of the Homochitto Forest, officials urge private landowners to keep watch for any infestations on their land, and just hope for the best until the outbreak subsides.




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