Gaither trees to be cut to keep beetles away

COVINGTON - Last year, southern pine beetles wreaked havoc on Newton's neighbor, Jasper County, and other counties farther south.

All signs point to a possible epidemic this year, as well, but the county is taking steps to make sure forest land at Gaither Plantation will be protected.

County commissioners recently approved a proposal by Beryl Budd, a community forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission's Forestry Program, to thin out pine trees on the Gaither property in hopes of preventing a pine beetle outbreak.

A total of about 730 acres will be thinned - 300 acres of land that has never been cleared and 431 acres that needs additional thinning.

According to Newton County Extension Agent Ted Wynne, thinning has to be done periodically in order to control the density of the trees. Beetles are attracted to overcrowded areas.

"(Trees) continue to grow and grow and grow and compete with each other, causing them to become stressed, and at some point, there are too many per acre," Wynne said. "The southern pine beetle likes these types of situations so they'll move in during dry weather and attack trees. They kill many acres at a time."

At Gaither, there are as many as 1,000 trees per acre in some spots, where there should only be 400 to 500, Budd said.

If an outbreak occurs, landowners can expect to see a decrease in the value of their timber, and trees that fall victim to the beetles may have to be cut down, Budd said.

"We're expecting pretty much an epidemic problem this year," he added.

Some trees at Gaither will be cut, while others will be sprayed with herbicide, primarily those that are competing with pines for space, such as red gum and cherry trees, he said.

The county has applied for a $10,000 cost share grant from the Georgia Forestry Commission to pay for the work. About $12,000 will likely come from county coffers, Budd said.

The county will also receive proceeds from the sale of timber.

The project is in keeping with a forest stewardship plan established at Gaither in 2001.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.