By Debra Davis
State land owners have a new tool courtesy of the Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) to help fight a tiny beetle that costs timber owners millions of dollars each year.
AFC has conducted aerial surveillance of Alabama forests for years, noting damage caused by the Southern Pine Beetle. AFC then contacts the owner to inform them of beetle damage. New technology allows landowners to see AFC surveillance information the same day it’s gathered.
“When our pilots spot a beetle infestation, they pinpoint that location using an iPad,” said State Forester Rick Oates. “When the pilots land, those locations are synchronized with a new mapping system on the AFC website.”
Oates said making information available faster helps landowners make decisions about how to address the infestation. It also can alert nearby landowners that beetles have been detected in their area.
To protect the confidentiality of landowners, AFC doesn’t display the beetle-damaged spots, nor the GPS coordinates, at a zoomed-in level. However, the map gives landowners a general idea of beetle activity. Landowners also can contact the local AFC office for assistance.
In addition to the online map, AFC trys to determine the landowner by using county tax records and sends a notification letter along with a more detailed map.
The beetles feed on tree tissue under the bark and effectively girdle a tree, causing its death. Southern pine beetles are the primary killers of pines in Alabama, with unmanaged and overcrowded stands of southern pines most susceptible to attack, said AFC Forest Health Coordinator Dana Stone. Epidemic populations of beetles occur periodically. If uncontrolled, the insects, which are about the size of a grain of rice, can devastate entire forests.
A drought in 2016 stressed trees in Alabama making them more susceptible to southern pine beetles in 2017 when damage reached epidemic proportions, Oates said. The aggressive tree killers are native insects that predominantly live in the inner bark of pine trees.
An estimated 450 acres of trees were affected last year costing landowners about $1.5 million in losses, Oates said. This year, damage is much less, with less than 10 acres detected so far, he said.
An aerial view of Alabama forestland is typically a sea of green trees. Beetle-damaged pine trees stand out because of their light green, yellow and reddish-colored needles.
“By the time pine trees change color, they’re under attack and dying,” Oates said. “Trees can’t be treated since the beetles are under the bark. The only option is to cut down affected trees and make a buffer around them.”
Forestry is Alabama’s largest agricultural industry and covers 23 million acres — about 69 percent of the state, Oates said. Forests generate over $21 billion in timber production and processing revenue and provide over 122,000 jobs to Alabamians.