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Louisiana lawmakers look to combat beetles killing the state’s pine trees

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(The Center Square) — Small beetles are killing Louisiana trees by the millions, causing damage to homes, roads, power lines and forests.

Last summer’s intense drought worsened an infestation of the Ips engraver beetle and has left rotting pine trees barely standing in yards and roadsides in Louisiana. Lawmakers convened an emergency beetle subcommittee on Tuesday to discuss ways to solve the issue.

During the hearing, legislators and experts alike said they regularly receive calls from widows and elderly homeowners worried a dead tree will fall on them any minute. Chairman and Rep. Michael Johnson, R-Pineville, even referenced a tree in his area that fell on a camper and killed a resident.

Wade Dubea with the Department of Agriculture and Forestry says while infestations are annual, this is the worst he’s seen since the late 1980s and this time it’s infecting urban areas and homeowners more than ever.

“It needs to be considered an emergency from a safety standpoint for the residents of Louisiana, and from a financial standpoint for utility companies,” Dubea said.

The drought last summer caused a lot of stress on both pine and hardwood trees. This made it easier for them to be infected by parasites, in the case of the hardwoods, and beetles, in the case of pines. The way the tiny beetles kill the tree is they consume wood under the bark, lay eggs in the affected tree and, the eggs hatch. Both the adults and larvae eat plant tissue known as cambium, which causes lethal damage.

The beetles are small, ranging in size from two to six millimeters in length.

A beetle infestation also usually brings with it a fungus that also helps hasten the tree’s demise.

It’s not always clear where the beetles are, so large-scale pesticide use could kill other beetles or insects that are needed by the ecosystem. Dubea also says the cost of these pesticides would be far too great for simple urban neighborhoods.

Todd Johnson, assistant professor of forest and entomology at the LSU AGcenter, says cultivating a habitat that allows other predator beetles to eat the Ips beetles is the best way to keep them in check. He also says being proactive tree maintenance and keeping them vigorous is the best combatant against insect infestation.

Experts agreed the best way to solve the problem is by cutting down the tree so beetles can’t move from limb to limb. However, the Ips beetles are harder to stop because they don’t need volume to spread. They can travel up to 1,500 yards from home to home by flying or crawling.

“The downside of this, there’s not much that can be done,” Dubea said. Dubea also said that once the tree is dead, the beetles are already long gone.

The easier solution is getting rid of the rotting pines before they inevitably fall.

The emergency forest restoration program is the only current federal program to help non-industrial private owners afford to get rid of dead trees, but it is only beneficial to large land owners. There is a minimum acreage requirement that keeps most homeowners from utilizing the program.

The state agriculture and forestry department has a campaign to educate homeowners. The campaign also helps get homeowners in touch with charitable organizations who help pay for the tree removal, but Dubea says that is a small drop in the bucket.

Dubea estimates the per-tree removal cost at $1,200 to $1,500. That cost can double that if it’s hanging over a house and removal requires a crane.

Because of the cost of machinery for arborists, finding contractors who can afford to work on land with such few trees has also been difficult.

It is legal to cut down a tree without an arborist license, but only if you’re not doing it for hire or profit. The homeowner is also liable for any damage the tree may cause after cutting it down.

Controlled burns are another strategy suggested that would prevent a later wildfire from catching these dead trees, especially in forests near homes, causing more damage and a longer life for the flame.

Adam Patrick from the Louisiana Department of Insurance says home insurance policies typically exclude tree damage and removal from their covered items, unless it falls due to a named storm. Patrick suggested the board seek federal funding because this type of insurance-related issue is usually regulated on the federal level.

A bill in the U.S. Senate by Mississippi Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith would provide assistance for landowners, timber harvesters and other affected parties. The measure, which was submitted in February, has been referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

Legislators on the subcommittee agreed there needs to be a plan that puts aside money for eliminating rotted pines and hardwoods before they fall.

“Any kind of hurricane comes through we’re in trouble,” said Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Evangeline. “Our power lines, our electricity, they’re just breaking off and falling on this stuff.”

No official solutions were discussed during this committee hearing, but experts and lawmakers agreed this issue cannot go without action.

“This is the start of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation,” said Rep. Michael Johnson, R-Pineville.

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