East Texas' iconic pines suffering under drought, infestation

Published on Tuesday, 25 June 2013 23:05 - Written by BY BELEN CASILLAS bcasillas@tylerpaper.com

East Texas’ pine trees are suffering the effects of a devastating and costly 2011 drought, and a Tyler arborist says tree-eating pests are looking to take advantage.

Mark Tietz, a certified arborist based in Tyler, said East Texas is home to four native pine trees — long leaf, short leaf, slash leaf and loblolly leaf. They grow here because conditions were right for them to thrive, but Tietz said people’s interference with the trees can cause problems and open the door for pests.

“The human influence is the main thing that causes problems with trees,” he said.

Water shortage, poor root conditions, improper branch trimming and crowded space for the trees growth can stress a tree’s natural environment — and that can create conditions ripe for tree-eating bugs to attack, Tietz said.

Julian Amaya, a commercial pecan grower in Bullard, said he has noticed pine trees dying in the area.

“The ones I have seen dead are older trees,” Amaya said. “They’re not genetically engineered to withstand a disease. The older varieties will get weak, and the bugs will get them.”

Although it is normal for pine trees to be about 15 percent brown during the late summer periods when they’re naturally losing needles, Tietz said it is not normal for the pine tree to turn into a brown-yellow color. This indicates the tree is drying out and dying from lack of water.

Tietz said the 2011 drought contributed to those dry conditions. According to the Associated Press, drought and heat wave conditions in Texas, Oklahoma and neighboring states in 2011 caused damage that passed the $5 billion mark. That year, Texas saw its worst drought since the 1950s and endured its driest single year going back to 1895.

When pine trees become unstable — through lack of water or because of conditions caused by human interference — they can be targeted by certain kinds of beetles that can kill the trees, Tietz said.

One sign of this type of beetle is a gum drop-like residue called a pitch tube at the outer bark of the pine tree. The beetle creates the pitch tube to enter into the tree to eat away at new growth.

Amaya said when beetles invade a tree, if not dealt with, they can spread.

“If you have one that has pine beetles they will infest the other ones,” he said. “You know you have to cut them and burn them because they will spread.”

Tietz said some ways to help the health of a pine tree is by not raking or removing the entire natural debris that’s fallen from the tree.

“If you really want to have a healthy tree, you need to protect those roots, and what you want to do is mimic what you find in Mother Nature, let the pine needles build up under the tree,” Tietz said.

He said the collection of needles retains water and helps nourish the roots. He said they also create a habitat for organisms that live beneath the leaves, providing additional nourishment for the tree.