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    Trees suffer from drought

    The summer rainy season has improved conditions, but insects and infections are now taking a toll.

    By EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


    The sickest oaks are easy to spot.

    Their bark has fallen off in jigsaw puzzle pieces and collected like a pile of scabs at the base. What is left of the trunk is bone white and covered with rust-colored bruises.

    They were healthy a year ago, part of the majestic, leafy canopy along Old Tampa Bay that is Philippe Park in north Pinellas County.

    But, like many places throughout Florida, Philippe Park's high elevation became a problem for trees during the prolonged drought. Many of Florida's trees, their roots dangling above the sunken water table, thirsted for months.

    Frail and starving, oaks and pines became easy prey for fungi and voracious beetles. As many as 4-million trees across Florida have been ravaged, say state Forestry officials. In a normal, drought-free year, about a million trees statewide die of disease and natural causes, the Forestry service reports.

    Hardest hit so far are Hernando, Alachua, Levy and Suwannee counties, which are battling an outbreak of southern pine beetles. Stressed out trees in Pinellas and Hillsborough have fallen victim to hypoxylon canker, a contagious fungus that eats through a tree's bark before moving on to another tree.

    It's extremely difficult to save these trees, officials said, because the diseases and pests are so aggressive.

    "I'm professionally, totally depressed," said Bob Der, a forester with Hillsborough County's Cooperative Extension Service. "Every time the phone rings, it's, "What about these dead trees?' I've been a forester here for more than 20 years and I've been in forestry for 34, and I've never seen anything quite this bad."

    And it's not just a problem for parks and preserves. Homeowners throughout Florida are grappling with unstable, diseased trees, which can pose a danger to houses, power lines and people.

    The dying trees have taken a toll on Clearwater arborist Loren Westenberger, who, like a country doctor, travels Pinellas County aiding sick trees. He knows of several homeowners who have gone on vacation, only to return in a few weeks to find dead and dying oaks and pines in their yards.

    "It's like dropping a pebble in a pool of water. You have a problem and it just ripples out," Westenberger said. "I make my money saving trees and doing sick tree diagnosis, and it breaks my heart to see this. The only treatment is a chain saw."

    The scene is critical throughout much of the bay area.

    Trees in all 23 of Pinellas' county parks are suffering from Ips beetle infestations and hypoxylon canker. County commissioners this week authorized the parks department to spend $200,000 to quickly cut down hundreds of infected trees.

    Professionals differ on how easily hypoxylon canker spreads. But many feel the fungus is so contagious that diseased trees should be chopped down and burned rather than used for mulch or firewood.

    The chain saws and wood chippers used to cut the trees must be thoroughly disinfected.

    Hernando County is offering a financial incentive to homeowners who cut down trees infested with pine beetles. The county will pay for half the removal costs, which can run over $1,000 per tree. County commissioners there are also pleading with the Department of Agriculture to help fund that program.

    Homeowners insurance often pays to remove trees damaged by lightning or those that fall onto structures. But most policies do not pay for the removal of a tree infested with insects or fungus.

    The southern pine beetles, which have eaten through 200,000 trees in Hernando, have been found in Citrus, Pasco and Hillsborough as well, though not to the same extent.

    But as the number of beetles grows, so does the danger. Forestry officials fear that hordes of southern pine beetles, especially in Hernando County, will go after healthy trees once they have finished dining on the weak ones.

    "Once they reach that level, it's almost like a forest fire. They just move from tree to tree to tree," said Dr. Ed Barnard, a forest pathologist with the state forestry service. "They'll take out trees that are stressed, trees that are healthy. It's not a good scene."

    Eventually, natural predators, viruses and rain will reduce the beetle population, but Hernando could have another difficult year before that happens, Barnard said.

    While the beetles and diseases are the immediate concern, Florida's prolonged dry conditions are to blame for the trees' sorry state.

    The drought truly started in 1998, but this year has achieved the notorious distinction of being the fifth driest in 110 years of recorded Florida weather. The vegetation that didn't burn struggled to survive on occasional waterings, limping into this summer's rainy season weak and dehydrated.

    Then the showers, so long desired, caused root rot in the weakest trees. Beetles made quick meals of the state's slash and sand pines. And hypoxylon canker went after laurel, turkey and live oaks. Cedars and even the drought-resistant ligustrom suffered.

    Just like people, healthy trees can fight off infection. The sap in a strong tree trunk usually washes the beetles out before they bore too deep. And hypoxylon canker does not ordinarily attack healthy trees, although it can lie dormant inside a tree for years, waiting for the tree to get sick.

    But Florida's trees were easy prey this year.

    "A lot of these tree diseases, they're like the common cold. They're always around," said Vance Perkey assistant supervisor at Philippe Park in Safety Harbor. "When you get run down and you don't get enough sleep and you're not getting good nutrition, these diseases all around you get to you."

    Unfortunately for the trees, the prognosis is poor. By the time hypoxylon canker eats through an oak tree's bark, death is imminent. If caught early, a beetle infestation can be reversed with pesticides.

    But it is harder to identify the pines attacked by beetles. Sap sometimes oozes out of the tiny holes bored by the insects, and sawdust gathers around the base of the tree.

    "Once you see the symptoms, it's usually too late to do anything about it," said Ray Mason, the state's assistant chief for forest management and a Pinellas County native.

    Watering the plants can keep them healthy and prevent infection, but water restrictions this year made that difficult.

    Horticulturist Opal Schallmo said she has received hundreds of calls at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension from homeowners wanting to know how to nurse their sick trees back to health. Like arborist Westenberger, she is often the bearer of bad news.

    "It's hard to explain to someone how a tree that's 30 or 40 years old just dies. People hope the plant will come back like in a freeze," Schallmo said. "But in a freeze, the top will die but the roots will bring it back. In a drought, the roots die first."

    Now, conditions are improving. About 8 inches of rain fell in the Tampa Bay area in July, as much rain as had fallen in the previous six months combined. Trees that rehydrate can regain their strength.

    When the crisis eventually ends, there may be a silver lining, forest and park officials say. For the most part, beetles and fungi attack the weakest trees. Removing those trees now prevents them from becoming a danger during a hurricane and also makes room for healthy growth.

    "This is nature's way of cleaning out the weakened gene pool," said Diana Kyle, Pinellas County's parks director. "And that's okay too."

    - Times staff writer Edie Gross can be reached at Gross@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

    How to get a checkup for your trees

    If you think you have a sick tree in your yard, it's best to get it looked at before it infects other trees or becomes a safety hazard. Your county forester and horticulturists at your local Cooperative Extension Service can provide some help. Tree doctors certified by the American Society of Consulting Arborists or the International Society of Arboriculture also are available.

    To reach a county forester or horticulturist, use these numbers:

    PINELLAS COUNTY: Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service in Largo, (727) 582-2100.

    HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY: Cooperative Extension Service in Seffner, (813) 744-5519.

    PASCO COUNTY: Forestry Division in Dade City, (352) 521-4297; Cooperative Extension Service in Dade City, (352) 521-4288.

    HERNANDO COUNTY: Forestry Division in Brooksville, (352) 754-6777; Cooperative Extension Service in Brooksville (352) 754-4433.

    CITRUS COUNTY: Forestry Division in Brooksville, (352) 754-6777; Cooperative Extension Service in Inverness (352) 726-2141

    To find certified arborists, use the following Web sites:

    http://www.asca-consultants.org/search/index.html for the American Society of Consulting Arborists.

    http://www2.champaign.isa-arbor.com/arborists/arborist.html for the International Society of Arboriculture.

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