Pest specialists with the Texas A&M Forest Service became concerned in early summer when an unexpected outbreak of the notorious southern pine beetle occurred in southwest Mississippi. 


    Like in East Texas, it had more than 15 years since Mississippi had suffered a major outbreak of southern pine beetle, historically the most destructive pest of southern pine forests. 


    By early June, however, more than 500 infestations had been detected from aerial surveys on the Homochitto National Forest. Additional spots began showing up on adjacent private lands. Many of the infestations were large and required direct control to halt their expansion in both natural stands and unthinned plantations. 


    With no markets for beetle-killed trees, U.S. Forest Service officials opted to treat rapidly expanding infestations with chainsaw crews and mechanical tree fellers using the “cut-and-leave” control method, which calls for the felling all currently-infested trees plus an adjacent buffer of unattacked pines. If applied correctly during the summer months, the treatment — developed in East Texas in the late 1960s — prevents additional tree loss by disrupting the beetle’s ability to expand infestations. The detection and control effort is still going on in Mississippi. 


    To be sure a similar SPB outbreak was not developing in East Texas, Texas A&M Forest Service district crews conducted reconnaissance flights over beetle-prone pine stands in various counties in July and August. Trees killed by last year’s drought, engraver beetles and frequent wildfires were evident, but fortunately no southern pine beetle infestations were detected. This lack of activity confirmed earlier predictions determined by using pheromone traps.


    Texas A&M Forest Service continues to take advantage of the lull in southern pine beetle activity by promoting prevention practices through the SPB Prevention Project, now in its eleventh year. In 2012, funding from U.S. Forest Service Forest Health Protection was reduced substantially across the South, including in East Texas. Nevertheless, federal cost-shares amounting to $150,000 were offered in FY 2012 and all funds were obligated by last May. 


    As of Sept. 1, the project has approved over 100,000 acres of first thinning of beetle-prone pine stands in Texas involving more than $6 million in cost shares. Of this total, 1,353 cases involving 87,000 acres have been completed and participating landowners paid in excess of $5 million in cost shares. The remaining cases are scheduled to be thinned within 18 months of approval. 


    Due to the demand for federal cost shares and reduction in federal funding, cost share rates were reduced in mid-February 2011 to a flat $50/acre for first thinning of high-hazard pine stands plus up to $5/acre for consulting forester fees in 30 beetle-prone counties. 


    Precommercial thinning is no longer cost shared. No new applications are being accepted until additional federal funding is received in the next federal fiscal year. Although there are no promises, Texas A&M Forest Service expects the SPB Prevention Project to continue at some funding level in FY2013. 


    Has the SPB Prevention Project eliminated the potential for SPB outbreaks in East Texas? Frankly, no. To review the current situation and discuss future needs, the SPB Task Force met recently in Lufkin. This group consists of representatives from Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas Forestry Association, U. S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Forest Landowner Council, forest industry, investment organizations, Stephen F. Austin State University, consulting foresters, Texas Logging Council and others with a vested interest in the protection of forest resources in Texas. As chairman of this group, I reviewed some sobering statistics at the Task Force meeting. 


    Although some 100,000 acres of high-hazard pine stands on small private landholdings have been or will soon be treated to reduce the hazard, data from Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) provides perspective to the problem. According to FIA data, the acreage of loblolly and shortleaf pine (considered southern pine beetle host types) in East Texas has increased by more than one million acres since 1992. About half of these pine forests are of large diameter (more than 9 inches in diameter). Also, little harvesting of timber has occurred on federal forest lands in recent decades. These factors suggest that the potential for another southern pine beetle outbreak may be greater than it was prior to the last outbreak in the early 1990s. 


    Responding to the next southern pine beetle outbreak also will be a challenge. East Texas has suffered a loss of chainsaw crews as well as foresters and field technicians with southern pine beetle experience. There are fewer mills to process beetle-killed trees. Forest industry in the past typically conducted their own ground evaluation and control of beetle infestations, and some did their own aerial detection. Will the new owners of these lands have the same capabilities? Clearly, training on southern pine beetle management for Texas A&M Forest Service personnel and others with large land holdings will be a necessity. 


    On the positive side, the federal wilderness areas in East Texas are much less prone to southern pine beetle outbreaks now because much of the pine host type was killed by the pest in the 1990s. Affected forests have been replaced largely by hardwoods or mixed pine-hardwood stands. Also, most Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) — groups who now own the 26 percent of the East Texas forest lands that previously were held by forest industries — have continued to intensively manage their pine stands. The periodic thinning and short rotations prescribed for these pine plantations render them less susceptible to outbreaks.


    Taking advantage of the recent SPB outbreak in Mississippi, Texas A&M Forest Service entomologists took a group of 12 new foresters and resource specialists to the Homochitto National Forest in July and provided “on-the-spot” training in southern pine beetle aerial detection, ground evaluation and control procedures. These out-of-state training sessions will be repeated when opportunities occur until the pest returns to East Texas. 


    Texas A&M Forest Service and the National Forests in Texas have developed strategic plans for suppression of the next outbreak. Members of the SPB Task Force have reviewed these strategic plans, which describe how these agencies will respond to the next beetle outbreak and will be updated periodically as new information becomes available. Hopefully, we will be prepared when the southern pine beetle decides to again make an appearance in the great state of Texas. 


    Written: Ron Billings, Forest Health Manager, Texas A&M Forest Service