Forest officials won’t spray insecticide on trees this spring

Prescott National Forest officials won’t spray insecticide on any ponderosa pine trees before the next wave of the pine bark beetle epidemic hits.

To save high-value trees from the bark beetle epidemic, the Forest Service had planned to ground-spray carbaryl directly on about 5,000 trees in 22 campgrounds, picnic areas, recreation areas and trailheads in the Prescott, Crown King and Mingus Mountain areas in February and March.

The Forest Service was on a tight schedule trying to get its environmental analysis, employee oversight certification, budgeting, contract and insecticide applicator bidding process ready within a few months.

Officials concluded that responding to unanticipated questions from the public would delay the project enough that over-wintering beetles would be flying again before the spraying could take place, forest health officer Gary Wittman said.

The Forest Service has reports that some beetles already may be flying to uninfested trees and laying new larvae, Wittman said. If they’re flying, it’s hard to figure out which trees already are infested, he said. The costly insecticide can’t save infested trees.

“We didn’t stop the project because we got so many calls against it,” Wittman said. “We just were running out of time.”

Depending on what the beetles do to the trees this summer, officials may pursue the plan this fall or early next spring, forest information officer Devin Wanner said.

Prescott National Forest officials received a few hundred phone calls, a petition with 136 signatures, and nine local letters about the tree-spraying plan. Most people expressed concerns and asked questions. The petition was adamantly against the plan, as were three letter writers.

“The negatives outweigh the positives in using any insecticide, especially in a forest that appears doomed anyway,” wrote Elizabeth Cottle of Prescott.

The one letter of support came from the Forest Trails Home-owners Association.

Most of the questions came from Prescott National Forest Friends leader Jim Powers, who posed dozens of often complicated questions in his eight-page letter.

The agency must respond to questions before starting the project, even though the project wasn’t subject to appeal through the normal channels because officials concluded that it qualified for a “categorical exclusion” from detailed studies.

Letter-writers most often expressed fears about the effect of the insecticide on the forest, its inhabitants and people. Some said they are especially sensitive to chemicals.

Already, the unprecedented epidemic has killed an estimated half-million ponderosa pine trees on the Prescott National Forest, totaling from 30 percent to 50 percent of the trees over 75,000 acres.

The Prescott Basin is among the hardest-hit areas of the Southwest, and Horsethief Basin south of Crown King has lost 95 percent of its pines. Many of the dead trees are in high-use areas such as the Thumb Butte Recreation Area, where many picnic tables now have no shade.

The trees in the campgrounds and picnic areas are especially susceptible to the beetles because the pavement and compacted soil restricts the ability of their roots to get water, Wittman said.

“There’s probably a better chance of trees in the campgrounds and recreation areas dying because of the added stress on those trees,” Wittman said.

While the Forest Service’s plan is dead or stalled, individual homeowners around the Prescott area continue to hire contractors to spray their pine trees with the insecticides carbaryl (trade name Sevin SL) and/or permethrin (trade names Astro and Dragnet), among other things.

Connie Koran at Praying Mantis Termite and Pest Control said her company alone is spraying about 100 trees in the Prescott area every day with permethrin.

She is dismayed at the opposition to the Forest Service’s attempt to save trees that provide shade in popular areas.

“When all the trees are dead, they’ll complain to the Forest Service that they didn’t do anything,” Koran said. “You can’t win.”

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