Louisiana lawmakers work to address ‘silent danger’ of thousands of dead and beetle-infested trees

Jul 10, 2024, 4:39 PM

FILE - This image provided by the USDA Forest Service shows a southern pine beetle completing metam...

FILE - This image provided by the USDA Forest Service shows a southern pine beetle completing metamorphosis into an adult at Kisatchie National Forest, in Pineville, La., Sept. 20, 2013. Louisiana officials say that dead pine trees, weakened by last summer’s drought and hungry beetles, are a major public safety concern and legislators on Louisiana's House Emergency Beetle Subcommittee gathered for their first meeting on Tuesday, July 9, 2024, to try to come up with solutions. (Erich Vallery/USDA Forest Service via AP, File)

(Erich Vallery/USDA Forest Service via AP, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Dead pine trees, weakened by last summer’s drought and hungry beetles, are a major public safety concern for Louisiana residents, with fears that fragile tree limbs may come crashing down on homes, roads, power lines and businesses without warning, officials say.

As more residents are reaching out to state and local officials asking for guidance and financial help to remove trees from their yards, legislators on Louisiana’s House Emergency Beetle Subcommittee gathered for their first meeting on Tuesday to try to come up with solutions. From directing residents to charitable entities to asking the governor’s help in seeking federal aid, officials say something must be done before there is widespread damage.

“You could be in your normal life and next thing you know you’ve got a tree over your bedroom, the kid’s room, your car, or it hits a power line and causes a fire,” said Republican state Rep. Michael Johnson. “In some sense, it’s a silent danger that is ultimately going to happen.”

Extreme drought struck last year in Louisiana, a state that typically is one of the wettest in the country. As millions of trees in the Bayou State struggled to survive, tiny bark beetles, namely the Ips Engraver, feasted on the pines. The pairing of weather and beetles caused more trees to die than some experts say they have ever witnessed before in central Louisiana.

Jim Meeker, a forest entomologist in Louisiana, said that when it comes to tree mortality in the area, he has “never seen anything like this.”

“This is really a hazardous tree emergency,” he said. “There are literally thousands and thousands of dead standing pine trees that are hazardous to health, property, travel corridors and right of ways.”

Falling tree limbs are a constant concern in Louisiana, a state that frequently faces threats of tornados, severe weather and hurricanes. But with a large abundance of severely weak and dead trees, officials say outside forces like strong winds may not even be needed to knock the trees down.

“We have it bad enough when storms come through, much less with them (trees) falling with no warning,” said Taylor Barras, the commissioner of the Louisiana Division of Administration.

Johnson said so far this year he knows of at least two cases in which weakened trees have fallen and killed people. In one case, a tree fell onto a woman’s camper during a thunderstorm in Pineville. In another, a tree fell on a man in St. Landry Parish as he was standing in a parking lot.

State officials, including legislators and those in the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, say they have been receiving numerous calls a day from residents worried about decaying trees in their yards and seeking resources to remove the pines. Tree removal can cost upwards of $1,000 and more than $3,000 for large trees close to the home.

The issue poses a hefty financial burden on residents, especially in a state that has the second-highest poverty rate in the country, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Johnson said he recently received a letter from an 87-year-old woman asking for help after being told it would cost her $6,000 to remove four trees.

“She has no money, but she’s in danger of those trees falling on her home,” Johnson said. “She’s scared to death.”

Additionally, if a dead tree is not removed and later falls on a neighbor’s property, officials say many insurance policies likely do not cover the damage and the resident would be held liable.

On Tuesday, lawmakers discussed creating a list of volunteer groups who may help residents remove trees, in addition to possible emergency funding to aid homeowners.

They also looked to solutions outside of Louisiana — possibly in the form of congressional bills that could aid in federal resources. Gov. Jeff Landry could issue a state of emergency declaration, which could allow for the use of state resources. Landry could go a step further and ask President Joe Biden for federal money and aid.

Landry’s office did not reply to an email seeking comment on the governor’s possible plans.

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Louisiana lawmakers work to address ‘silent danger’ of thousands of dead and beetle-infested trees