When The Bough Breaks

Northwest Woods is dying. You may have noticed while on a walk through Cedar Point Park, or driving down 114, that the once-dense pine woodland that stretches between Sag Harbor and East Hampton is looking a bit woebegone. Some trees are thinning and falling down; bigger swaths have been chopped to stop the spread of an invasive insect. The foliage is patchy. Native groundcover—wood pinks (trailing arbutus), lady’s slippers, the rare persimmon—has thinned. For a community like ours, where people feel passionately about land preservation and keeping neighborhoods beautiful, the decline in the state of the woods is troubling. But even more troubling is the uncertainty about how to fix it. 

A number of organizations are investigating the ecological decline of the woods, with experts pointing fingers at everything from climate change to real estate development to a particularly pesky species of beetle. But, given how many woods-dwelling residents are directly impacted, the public outcry has been surprisingly muted. East Hampton is a community that has always been almost peculiarly passionate about its trees (see: the good works of the Ladies Village Improvement Society’s venerable tree committee), but, so far, at least, the humble white pine and pitch pine—the most numerous species in the historical woodlots where the town forefathers once got their firewood and construction materials—have gotten less love than the emblematic elms of Main Street.

While the failure of a forest ecosystem is a complex issue with many contributing factors, at this point, there are three primary suspects. The first will come as no surprise: the climate. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last year was the third hottest on record, surpassed only by 2012 and 2016, and the rise in temperatures is affecting ecosystems across the globe as well as, it seems, our own backyard. 

John Andrews from the Long Island chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonprofit advocacy group, warned in an article for The East Hampton Star last summer that we could start to see the adverse effects of climate change on the East End not in 10 years, but now. A change of a few degrees might not seem like much when packing for the weekend, but it can have a dramatic effect on ecological systems, impacting forrest health by altering rainfall, growth rates, susceptibility to disease, animal activity, and migration.

Climate change, some experts say, is the underlying cause behind the second and most obvious threat to the health of the woods: a parasitic species called the southern pine beetle. Previously common mainly in Mexico and Central America, this unassuming brown insect has been drawn northward by warming temperatures and its population has spiked dramatically across Long Island recently.

The white pine of Northwest Woods has a royal history. In colonial times, the king of England—recognizing its essential value to settlers, who used it to build just about everything, from masts to houses—laid claim to it as his tree. But while the noble white pine can stand up fairly well to an onslaught of pests, the pitch pine (which is more numerous in the southern reaches of Northwest Woods) is a less hearty species and has been struggling since the beetle arrived on the East End scene in 2013. The shabby pitch-pine bark is easier for the bug to burrow into. 

Larry Penny, the well-known Long Island naturalist and writer of “Nature Notes” for The Star, recalled in 2017 how he first noticed the signs of southern pine beetle activity. He and his team were posting Caution signs along the perimeter of a Nature Conservancy preserve on Swamp Road in preparation for hunting season when they saw “pitch tubes” (or clumps of sap) running up the trunks of several pitch pines. Pitch tubes, which are small holes in the bark through which a beetle has burrowed, look like ugly little anthills and are a telltale indicator of infestation. Penny knew he had to act quickly. Two days later, officials from the town arrived to demarcate the infected area. They calculated about 6.5 acres of infestation, but it was spreading fast. A week later, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation came to officially map the woods. By that time, the beetle plague had spread to 13.5 acres.

 The town declared a state of emergency. Rushing to control an infestation that, if left unattended, could devastate wooded areas across the South Fork, teams set out to extinguish the beetle the only way they could—by cutting down trees. According to Andrew Drake, an environmental analyst for the Town of East Hampton, records indicate that 9,938 pitch pine trees were felled between November 2017 and May 2018. 

“East Hampton Town and New York State [D.E.C.] staff performed ‘cut and leave’ management practices on affected public lands,” says Drake. “The town hired trained contractors to cut affected trees on private lands”—upon owner request and with permission granted—“during the state of emergency. “The woods are healthier now that the infested trees are down.” 

But while the chop-down mission has been successful in slowing the spread of the beetle, it has presented a new set of problems, not the least of which is the degradation of the character of the neighborhood.

Residents of Northwest Woods were once cozily insulated by a thick growth trees, lending the area a feeling of isolation and brawny wilderness. Now, many can see straight into their neighbors’ kitchen windows through the thinned-out trunks. The appearance of so many felled trees and clearings where there was once healthy forest brings to mind the image aftermath of a hurricane, tornado, or wildfire. Northwest Woods has been through a natural disaster.

The long-term problem is that all the chopping down doesn’t ensure that the southern pine beetle won’t bounce back. While the D.E.C. continues to monitor the situation, it admits that its scientists do expect to find more blighted trees in coming years, estimating that around 10 percent of the original beetle population could return each year. “This is a management effort, not an eradication of southern pine beetle,” says Andrew Drake. “We need to be clear about that.” If all goes according to plan, the tree loss should be considerably lower each year. Last year, 10,000 trees were cut. This year, the number should fall into the 1,000 range. Next year, 100 . . . and so on.

The third and final reason why Northwest Woods is a failing ecosystem is the legacy of some 350 years of farming practices. Long Island was once home to several large predators, including bears, bobcats, and wolves, but the predators’ populations shrank once colonizers had arrived and begun hunting them to protect domesticated animals. 

In order for an ecosystem to thrive, there has to be balance, and for balance there need to be predators, not just prey. Without predators, smaller animals are free to eat and reproduce unchecked, swelling to the ecosystem-disrupting numbers we see today. The most obvious example being, of course, deer. Foragers by nature, deer have been decimating the understory of Northwest Woods. Ground birds are losing their nesting habitats, and, as the trees go down, woodpeckers and owls are losing theirs, too. Frank Quevedo of the South Fork Natural History Museum acknowledges that the “biodiversity is totally out of whack.” 

One eye-opening suggestion for a solution to the predator problem that is fueling this chain reaction of ecosystem decline is to introduce a predator into the ecosystem. 

“Coyotes are naturally working their way to fill a niche,” Quevedo says. Indeed, to the alarm of many, there have been several coyote sightings on the East End over the last few months, and the ecologists are celebrating. Penny has also expressed excitement about this predator moving into the neighborhood: “I’m very happy the coywolves are making it.” 

Coywolves? “A coyote and a wolf cross,” Penny clarifies. Apparently, populations of this hybridized species have been growing throughout the Northeast, which may prove to be great news for the woods (if perhaps worrisome for owners of house cats).

Frank Vincenti, founder of the Wild Dog Foundation, is committed to preparing Long Island for the growth of a potential new coyote colony. Vincenti has been giving talks about coexistence between humans and coyotes for the past 25 years in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but when reached by phone in May admitted that there aren’t many grants available to his cause, and few donations. So far, coyotes have proven less popular in the cuteness category than, say, white-tailed deer are in some quarters. Vincenti’s goal is to improve the coyote’s reputation.

One animal can’t turn an ecosystem around, Vincenti says. But a keystone predator like a coyote could be “a counterforce,” perhaps even helping lower the incidence of Lyme disease, which thrives on host mammals (rodents, squirrels, and deer). Others might beg to differ, but Vincenti isn’t concerned that coyotes could pose a threat to people. He has spent time working on coexistence between coyotes and humans in Connecticut, he says, and “there has been no conflict.” 

In the meantime, Drake, the East Hampton Town environmental analyst, is working with his team to organize a forest restoration drive. They have hosted two cone-collection programs with the Group for the East End and the Trails Preservation Society: Pitch-pine cones are collected to be germinated and grown into seedlings, with help from the Saratoga Tree Nursery. “This effort will ultimately bring young pitch-pine trees back to our local forests and replace some of the stands we have had to cut down,” Drake says. The town has also purchased 1,000 white-pine saplings, which are being distributed to landowners affected by the onslaught of the southern pine beetle.

Environmentalists like Penny and Drake take the long—long—view on the crisis in Northwest Woods. They know that no forest, and no ecosystem, is static. A woodland and its inhabitants are always in flux, and this forest has been heating up, Penny points out, since the glaciers left tens of thousands of years ago. 

“We live in a naturally beautiful, globally unique area that faces many potential environmental threats,” Drake says. “But over all, as an environmentalist, the only choice is to remain hopeful and optimistic.”

Zinnia Smith

Zinnia Smith is a writer and painter, living between New York and Boston. Her work is published with The Southampton Review, Story Magazine, Yankee Magazine, Public Pool, and Slab. She likes tequila and protest art. @zinnia_smith