BY THE NUMBERS
$246 million: Cost of damage to pine trees in Georgia since 1972
10,000: Number of Southern pine beetles that can be produced from a single tree
9,100: Spots of affected trees in Georgia in 2002
30-40 days: Life cycle of a pine beetle
1/8 of an inch: Length of an adult pine beetle
Source: Georgia Forestry Commission
A few pockets of dead pine trees in Dade and Walker counties have some North Georgia officials worried the area could be facing the return of the pine beetle.
"We really won't know anything until the spring, but there are a couple of red flags," said Josh Burnette, a forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission's Northwest Georgia Region.
Burnette has spotted one beetle outbreak in Dade County and three or four more near the Walker-Chattooga County line. What he doesn't know is whether they'll be back in the spring and, if so, how many relatives they'll bring.
"Nothing huge right now, but it's definitely something we want to keep an eye on," Burnette said.
The tiny, black beetles cause big problems, swarming several varieties of pine trees and boring networks of tunnels throughout the wood. The crisscrossing burrows, along with a deadly fungus the beetles often carry, eventually kill the trees and the swarm moves on to the next host.
Since 1972, beetles have ruined $246 million worth of pine trees, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission.
The calendar isn't on Georgia's side. Experts say pine beetle epidemics usually occur every 10 to 12 years. Georgia's last major outbreak was 2002, and Tennessee's was in 2001.
"If history tells us anything, the populations should be on the increase," said Scott Griffin, forest health specialist with the Georgia Forestry Commission.
John Kirksey, resource protection unit leader for the Tennessee Division of Forestry, said his foresters are investigating some pine stands in Hamilton and Bradley that are "suspect."
"We'll take a pretty close look at it," he said.
Forestry officials in other drought-stricken areas of the country also are concerned. Dry weather stresses trees and limits the amount of sap -- the primary defense against the beetles -- that pines can produce.
Mississippi and Oklahoma are offering money to landowners who thin their pine stands, hoping the remaining trees will be healthier with less competition for water and nutrients.
"We're due for an infestation," Brian Hall, a staff protection forester at the Oklahoma Forestry Services, told The Associated Press. "So instead of just waiting, we're trying to be proactive so it's not so devastating."
But officials don't want to overblow the problem.
"This may just be some isolated spots," Georgia's Griffin said.
Gary Roark, the area forester for Franklin, Grundy and Marion counties, said he's seen no sign of the pests.
"The beetle population is pretty low right now from what we can tell," he said.
But the ingredients are there.
The biggest factor is dry weather, but wind or ice storms that cause tree damage also can make things easier for the beetles. The Chattanooga area has had both.
"It weakens the tree," Kirksey said. "It gives any kind of pine beetle an opportunity."
The best hope, he explained, is for a cold January and February to kill off some of the beetles. Initial forecasts, however, call for a mild winter.
Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...