Hope Amid East Hampton's Felled Pines

Forest renewal effort aims to propagate seedlings with native genetic material
In an area off Route 114 devastated by the southern pine beetle, Andrew Drake of East Hampton Town’s Department of Land Acquisition and Management looked for viable pitch pine cones that could give rise to future generations of the native pines. Carissa Katz

Picking his way around the trunks of acres upon acres of felled pitch pines off Route 114 in East Hampton on Tuesday morning, Andrew Drake was on the hunt for the stuff of new life amid the ruins of the forest. 

The tiny but deadly southern pine beetle ravaged that area and many others in Northwest Woods at the tail end of 2017. To contain the infestation, Mr. Drake and his colleagues at the East Hampton Town Department of Land Acquisition and Management, along with contractors hired by the town, cut down close to 10,000 native pitch pines on public and private property between November and January. 

Whole swaths of formerly wooded areas were largely bare and piled high with the remains of the devastated trees. In that wreckage, Mr. Drake is looking for hope: viable pinecones that can be used to propagate pitch pine seedlings with the same genetic material as the native trees that were cut down. 

In a year or two, when the seedlings, which are to be sent to a state tree nursery in Saratoga Springs, are about a foot tall, they will be brought back to East Hampton to be planted in town nature preserves. “That will ensure that pitch pines remain a dominant tree species in our local forest,” said Mr. Drake, an environmental analyst.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Drake and Andrew Gaites, a senior environmental analyst with the town, met with a team of volunteers from the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society who fanned out across two heavily affected properties by Swamp Road and Route 114. The town had cut down 497 trees in that immediate area, most recently in January, and Mr. Drake and Mr. Gaites thought those properties presented the best chances of finding healthy pinecones still attached to dead trees. 

“We’re trying to gather as many closed cones off these downed pitch pines as possible,” he said. It’s not as easy as simply picking up what’s on the ground. Often, the pinecones opened just after the trees were cut down, the trees’ last-gasp effort to ensure their genetic survival. When the cones are still closed, it “means that the seeds have not dropped out yet and they’re still viable for germinating.”

“I personally scoured every other site and tried to gather what I could,” Mr. Drake said. That’s why the town is sending the pinecones it has collected over the past week to the forestry experts at the Department of Environmental Conservation’s New York State Tree Nursery in Saratoga Springs. The goal is to grow as many seedlings as possible. With the help of Tuesday’s volunteers, and the Group for the East End, the Central Pine Barrens Commission, and the D.E.C., 10 bushels of pinecones were collected for Nathan Hudson, of the D.E.C., to take upstate on Tuesday afternoon. In the end, the town hopes to get back thousands of seedlings.

The southern pine beetle infestation was first detected in East Hampton Town in the fall, but for years before then the Department of Land Management had been eyeing the pests’ progress across New Jersey, western Long Island, the central pine barrens, and Southampton Town. Research forums at Brookhaven National Laboratory helped prepare them to deal with the problem once it arrived here. 

In early October, Mr. Drake reported to the town board that 800 trees were infested with the beetle, a tiny pest he described as “the size of a chocolate sprinkle.” Later that month, the number grew to nearly 2,000, and the town declared a state of emergency allowing the Department of Land Management to cut down infested pine trees on public and private property, with landowners’ permission. By December nearly 8,000 trees were infested. 

The affected trees were mostly in Northwest Woods, and some were found in Wainscott. The beetle did not hit Springs at all, and the airport property, where pitch pines are plentiful, was also spared. 

The beetles tunnel under the bark of pine trees, blocking the flow of nutrients,  killing the tree within months. Although they can live in white pines — taller trees with longer, finer needles — they cannot reproduce in them and do not kill them, Mr. Drake said. “White pines are like the innocent bystanders.” Hardwoods are not affected.

There are two ways of suppressing southern pine beetle infestations. One, which the D.E.C. calls “cut and remove,” involves felling infested trees and those in a buffer around them and removing them from the site. The method the town chose is called “cut and leave.” Infested trees and a buffer are cut down and left on the ground, with the bark scored to expose the beetles to the elements. “Cut and leave is the most cost and time-effective,” Mr. Drake said Tuesday. 

Cutting the tree down “cuts off the beetles’ pheromone production — that’s how they communicate — and it cuts off their energy production,” he explained. So even when the stumps and trunks remain on the ground, the beetle’s march of destruction is halted. “We cut down the infested trees and cut a healthy ring around it. It’s very unlikely that [the beetles] are going to find that next healthy tree to attack.”

The downside of the cut-and-leave method, is “it’s messy,” Mr. Drake acknowledged. On private property, landowners are responsible for the cost of removing the trees — in some cases many thousands of dollars — although the town will accept all material at its recycling centers free of charge. 

“We were very clear about what we were going to do on private land. We had property owners sign a contract, provide photo ID, and we told them our goal was to suppress infestation,” Mr. Drake said. As tough as it may be to see so many downed trees, the alternative, he said, would be much worse. “Each infested tree can lead to 10 more.” 

Mr. Drake said the infestation appears to be in check. The town continues to offer to inspect private properties and make recommendations for dealing with the beetle. So far, Mr. Drake and Mr. Gaites have inspected over 500 parcels around the town. “We’re looking at every individual tree.” All but a handful of private landowners have given permission for infected trees to be cut down. 

Dealing with the southern pine beetle infestation has been a grim task, but the forest rehabilitation efforts of the past two weeks have injected a much-needed dose of optimism into the story. “Everybody is coming together to do right by public land,” Mr. Drake said.

The southern pine beetle, no bigger than “a chocolate sprinkle,” tunnels under the bark of pitch pines, blocking the flow of nutrients to the trees. Carissa Katz
Volunteers from the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society helped collect cones from native pitch pines in the woods off Swamp Road and Route 114 on Tuesday. The cones will be used to propagate seedlings that will eventually be replanted here. Carissa Katz
Some 10,000 pitch pines were cut down in an effort to suppress the spread of the southern pine beetle. On every one, the bark was scored like this to expose the burrowing pest to the elements.Carissa Katz
Andrew Drake, right, showed volunteers from the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society what kind of pinecones to look out for in the woods on Tuesday.Carissa Katz