Over the past month, Robert Potter watched as the needles on his pine trees turned from dark green to brown.
The shift started happening after Tropical Storm Irma. His trees were dying and he couldn’t figure out why, he said.
Potter, who lives on the beachfront in Palmetto Dunes on Hilton Head Island, recently hired a crew to dig some holes in his yard. About 2-3 feet underground, he found the water table, which tasted salty, he said.
“You can see trees browning out from the beach side to the street side, because the roots are sitting in saltwater,” he said.
In the past couple of weeks, Potter has had to take down seven dead pines in his yard.
From Palmetto Dunes to Sea Pines to Port Royal and everywhere in between, pine needles are starting to brown and fall off, bark is peeling and beetles are chewing away at the inside, creating piles of sawdust at the bottom of the trees. Tree experts and homeowners across the island are trying to determine why.
Andrew Schumacher, CEO of Palmetto Dunes Property Owners Association, said he’s working with his tree vendor, Bartlett Tree Experts, to “get to the root of the problem, no pun intended,” he said.
“It’s not isolated to the pine trees closest to the ocean. Certain pine trees also look stressed further into the neighborhood,” Schumacher said. “We’re not sure if it’s due salt intrusion, stress from storms, or what. So we’re going to try to get a better understanding of what we’re dealing with.”
Todd Rader, arborist for Bartlett Tree Experts, has seen hundreds of pine trees across the island die since the beginning of summer. Although he said some could be due to saltwater intrusion, beetles are also to blame.
“Once pines trees are stressed out, then they attract different kinds of bark beetles,” he said. “Some of the salt will eventually go away and some (trees) will recover, but in a stressed state, bark beetles become a huge issue.”
“Another factor that’s making it worse is that it hasn’t rained much since Irma,” he added. “If it rains, that can help wash out the soil.”
In order to understand the problem at Palmetto Dunes and many other communities on the island, Rader recently sent soil and beetle samples to a lab.
Five different types of bark beetles can be found on the Lowcountry, but there’s one that would be truly detrimental to Hilton Head’s tree population, according to Rader.
“If it’s Southern pine beetles, that could be devastating,” he said.
Southern pine beetles not only attack stressed trees, but healthy pines as well.
In 2016, Georgia and Florida experienced Southern pine beetle outbreaks, which threatened more than 1,000 acres in Florida and 500 acres in Georgia.
At that time, Carolyn Dawson, a Clemson Cooperative Extension area forestry agent said in a press release: “The past two years, our state has been battered by a superstorm and a hurricane that caused major flooding and wind damage. We’ve also had months-long stretches of high heat and severe drought ... Though not much of consequence has occurred recently in South Carolina, outbreaks have occurred in Georgia and Florida in 2016 that could be early signals of an eventual threat to our state.”
According to John Snow, certified master arborist for Jones Brothers Tree Surgeons, the recent tree loss on Hilton Head “all goes back to Hurricane Matthew.”
Walking around Sea Pines, Snow said, “it’s unusual to see this many trees dead in such a small area.”
“A lot of pine trees were somewhat damaged during that, with all the swaying and rocking. The root system may have been a little damaged, but the tree didn’t fall over,” he said. “On the east side of the island, we’ve seen a lot suffering from saltwater intrusion and root damage, because salt and tree roots are not going to be a good combination.”
Then, as Rader noted, beetles will start to feed on stressed trees and spread from one to another.
The best thing to do after infestation is remove the trees, which costs about $900 to $1,500 each on average, according to Snow.
“Once the bugs get into the trees, it’s too late,” he said. “It’s no longer cost effective to do any treatment then.”
Snow recommends inspecting trees on an annual basis and treating them before it’s too late.
“It’s really important to do these inspections so you can get ahead of the problem rather than dealing with the problem head on,” he said.