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U.S. forests face increased threats including spongy moth, Southern Pine Beetle

spongy moth caterpillar
Images courtesy Southern Group of State Foresters

Environmental and biological threats to forests across the United States are presenting challenges for federal and state agencies as well as private landowners.

Drought, pest outbreaks and invasive species pose a serious threat to the health and sustainability of forests, according to the Southern Group of State Foresters.

Proactive measures are being taken to combat the top four forest health threats this year.

Drought/lps bark beetles

Pine trees began dying in 2023 in response to a hot drought and outbreaks of lps bark beetles. While less aggressive than the southern pine beetle, the lps bark beetles still pose a serious problem when pines are vulnerable to pests during environmental stress.

In Mississippi and Louisiana, an estimated 150,000 acres of pines died, although some of the mortality was attributed to wildfires.

The USDA Forest Service is currently working with the Farm Service Agency to provide reforestations support to impacted landowners.

southern pine beetle

Southern Pine Beetle

The Southern Pine Beetle is a native bark beetle found in the South. This year, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina has moderate to high activity which has a major impact on southern yellow pine trees.

A prevention program has been in place for two decades with 1.4 million acres being treated with 18,000 landowners participating in state cost-share programs. Treatments include prescribed fire and thinning with the restoration of less susceptible pine forests, according to a blog post by the Southern Group of State Foresters.

Spongy moth

Spongy moth, formerly known as gypsy moth, feeds on hundreds of species of trees and shrubs and target oak trees. The caterpillars eat all the leaves during outbreaks which occur every eight to 12 years in the U.S. Last year, outbreaks impacted 1.3 million acres in 13 states.

In Northern Virginia, outbreaks began in 2022, killing mature trees and causing allergic reactions in some people.

The USDA Forest Service’s health protection office collaborated with the George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park to preserve high-value forests within the outbreak area. Forests were treated with aerial applications to save campgrounds, trailheads and high-use areas. Btk, an insect bacterium, kills feeding caterpillars.

blight brown spot needle

Brown spot needle blight

Brown spot needle blight, known as BSNB, is an emerging disease on loblolly pines. Lecanosticta acicula, a fungal pathogen, causes severe damage to longleaf pines at the grass stage. Since 2016, it has also become a serious threat to the health of loblolly pines in 115 counties and nine states.

Research is currently being done to learn more about how to manage BSNB.

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.