For the past decade, two different species of pine bark beetles have extended their ranges over the western and eastern United States. In the west, the mountain bark beetle kills thousands of trees each year. In the east, the southern bark beetle is quickly extending its range northward to the Pinelands, a huge and important ecological reserve in southern New Jersey. The reason that the problem has been exacerbated in recent years? Climate change.
As the NY Times reported yesterday, in the past, cold winters kept the beetle population under control. The beetles cannot survive temperatures lower than minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit; in the past, the Pinelands experienced temperatures that low several times per decade. However, the last time the thermometer dipped so low was 1996; according to the Times report, the beetles were first noticed in the Pinelands five years later.
The problem is exacerbated by poor forest management practices: pine forests need fire to clear out dead wood and diseased trees and allow new, vigorous plants to sprout. But for the past hundred years, forestry practices have leaned toward fire suppression, leaving the forests crowded with weak trees. Weak trees are more susceptible to pests and diseases than strong healthy ones.
The solution advocated by most environmentalists includes controlled burns and selective cutting of diseased trees. This approach was approved by the NJ legislature but vetoed by Governor Christie. Instead, the state is simply spot-treating outbreaks with pesticides rather than managing the problem in a more holistic and environmentally safe manner.
The Pinelands are an environmental jewel. The area contains a large a pristine aquifer, many species of rare plants, including orchids, and a unique ecosystem that encompasses the northern range of many southern plants and animals as well as the southern range of many northern ones. Do some reading about the area; plan a visit. And contact your state legislators to encourage them to work on a comprehensive forest management plan. New Jersey is more than suburbs and shore. Help protect the Pinelands before they indeed become barren.