Southern Pine Beetle Causes Huge Headache

East Hampton Town officials have a real problem on their hands as a deadly pine tree infestation rages in Northwest Woods. Officials hope to get private property owners’ permission for crews to take down trees under attack by the southern pine beetle at the town’s expense. But, as residents of the affected area learn that they will be responsible themselves for the hefty cost of disposing of the downed trees, some may balk at allowing the town access.

Residents’ hesitation about allowing the town onto their land may increase as huge piles of 80-to-100-foot-long logs become visible off Swamp Road, for example. Property owners who already allowed inspectors and crews to do their work are now stunned to find out they are on the hook for thousands of dollars of unanticipated costs. This could well lead some to refuse to cooperate, which has the makings of a massive headache. 

Unless many more trees are taken down quickly, the beetle could spread beyond the relatively small area it is now known to affect. Already, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell has declared a state of emergency in order to free money for tree cutting. Cooperation from landowners is essential, but getting that cooperation will be difficult if the personal cost for removal or chipping them in place is prohibitive.

The town rationale about why it cannot pay to help remove trees from private property does not sound quite right. A town attorney said on Tuesday that to do so would violate a state prohibition on government “gifts” to individuals. How this squares with the town’s generous new septic rebate program, for example, was not explained.

If there is a genuine environmental crisis unfolding, which it appears there is, then it is surely in the public interest that money be found to assure public participation in the effort. The weak answer that the town can do nothing more than take down the trees cannot be the end of the discussion if the remaining pine forests are to be saved.

It is good that the town may waive log and brush fees at the recycling center for property owners in the affected area, but it will likely have to do much more before the infestation is contained.