Conservation Groups Team Up To Combat Southern Pine Beetle Outbreak

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Nantucket pitch pines infected by southern pine beetles. Photo courtesy of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.

The Nantucket Land Bank and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation are partnering on an ambitious plan to control the southern pine beetle infestation that has damaged dozens of pitch pines and led to the closure of several trails in Ram Pasture.

The plan, which would involve cutting down 97 trees and removing a significant amount of understory, is still a work in progress, and some details, like what would happen to the tree trunks, are not yet clear. To help control the infestation, the trees, which are large by Nantucket standards, will not be removed from the property. But that makes handling the trunks difficult. Typically the Land Bank would remove and dispose of dead trees.

The scale and severity of the infestation are also why the trails, including a portion of the new Coast-to-Coast trail, had to be closed, a rare step that raised some questions from Land Bank Commissioners.

This infestation, which is so far contained to Nantucket Conservation Foundation property, is the first one on Nantucket, but it is likely only a matter of time before there are more. The invasive beetles have been found on Nantucket for years, but their numbers have remained low—until last month. Conservation professionals urge anyone who sees several dead pines in close proximity to each other to reach out so that any infestations are caught early.

In the past, Nantucket’s winters were cold enough to deter the beetles, which are native to warmer climates. But as winters become more mild, the tiny black beetles are able to multiply across the island and devour local pines. Pitch pines have become integrated into the island’s ecology and play host to endangered bats, potentially helping to shield them from a deadly disease that has decimated their numbers off-island.

In anticipation of future outbreaks, the Land Bank has helped to form a southern pine beetle task force and is offering staff and equipment to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation to help manage the beetles. They may ultimately need outside help from off-island as well, but they won’t know until work begins in early September.

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