An unusually mild winter has prompted early action from New Jersey environmental officials against a pest that has gnawed through hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pine trees in the eastern United States.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has launched aerial surveillance and has begun cutting down trees to prevent the spread of the southern pine beetle through the Pinelands, the state's mostly rural coastal plain, home to the first-ever national nature reserve in the U.S.
The state's efforts are coming early this year because winter temperatures wiped out fewer beetles than normal. The invasive pests are "showing disconcerting signs of early activity," the agency says.
"We have to be prepared to fight the pine beetle on all fronts," said Bob Martin, the agency's commissioner, in a release . Those efforts include doling out grants to private land owners, municipalities and civic groups to combat the beetle locally. The grants will total $315,000, drawn from federal funds.
The pest, about the size of a grain of rice, burrows deep under bark, feeding on tissue and choking trees off from their food supply. It also introduces a fungus that prevents the tree from repelling it.
The beetle thrives in warm, dry weather and is notorious for ravaging forests in the Southeastern states. It has cost the lumber industry hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades, and it has left forests vulnerable to fires. In Georgia alone, the beetle has killed more than $250 million worth of trees since 1972, according to the state's forestry commission.
The beetle has more recently spread up the Atlantic Coast, entering southern New Jersey in 2001. There, it has killed some 21,000 acres of pine forest during the past two years, state officials say.
The southern pine beetle is just one of many invasive insects wreaking havoc across the U.S. Its cousin, the mountain pine beetle, has killed millions of acres of trees in the West, and states have spent millions of dollars trying to stop it.
Each year, state and local governments spend about $1.7 billion as a result of local pests, researchers estimate, and residents lose a combined $1.5 billion in property value. The federal government spends about $216 million annually on the problem, with most of the money going to research.
Most invasive pests enter the country on plants or in wooden boxes shipped internationally, but federal efforts to keep them out have faded since the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was in the aftermath of those attacks that federal customs, immigration, and agriculture inspection officers were merged under the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security.