By JACK WEATHERLY
A “severe outbreak” of Southern pine beetles threatens tens of thousands of acres of the trees that are a major part of the Mississippi economy.
U.S. Forest Service entomologist Jim Meeker said in a release that “this outbreak is unprecedented in scope with beetle activity progressing at breakneck speed with infestations rapidly escalating in size, coalescing and decimating whole plantations” on federal lands.
Thus far, private land has basically escaped the onslaught but crews with the Mississippi Forestry Commission are working with the federal agency to monitor and combat the infestation, according to Russell Bozeman, assistant state forester.
Mississippi has 19.8 million acres of forestland, 64 percent of the state’s total acres. Seventy-five percent is owned by individuals, 18 percent by state or federal government and 7 percent by corporations, according to 2015 figures, the most recent available.
The forest industry represents almost 70,000 jobs in the state and has a total annual economic impact of $12.8 billion, according to the commission.
More than 3,500 infestation spots have been found in the Homochitto, Bienville, Tombigbee and Holly Springs forests, according to the release.
The outbreak has been fueled by two summers of drought followed by two winters of unusually high temperatures.
Bozeman said in an interview that the commission, working in conjunction with the federal agency is conducting flyovers with planes equipped with GPS devices to produce maps for landowners.
Bozeman said the maps and other information will be offered soon.
The flyovers have covered about 15 counties that comprise the national forests. They have been carried out in addition to the two annual flyovers of all 82 counties in the spring and fall.
Bozeman said he thinks the fall flights will be expedited this year.
The beetles initially seek trees that are sickly, say because of lightning strikes. And if they can establish themselves that way, they can move on to healthy trees and spread, Bozeman said.
Wood markets have not been healthy in recent years, discouraging landowners from practicing good management, such as thinning plantations to allow the best trees to reach maturity, he said.
Unthinned stands of trees total about 100,000 acres, according to the Forest Service.
“Our crews are working very hard in some extreme conditions including rough terrain and excessive heat,” Mississippi Forest Supervisor Gretta Boley said of efforts to cut diseased and dying trees.
Heavy rains this summer have limited the logging crews.
The preferred method is to cut and remove the diseased trees, but “because of the markets and weather, cut and remove has not been available as an option,” the release stated.
Mario Rossilli, spokesman for the Forest Service headquarters in Jackson, said in an interview that the agency is looking for markets so it can “move this stuff out.”
As things stand now, that “inventory” is more than 50,000 truckloads, Rossilli said.