The loblolly pine is a trademark feature of south Arkansas' landscape, but something is attacking and, in some cases, even killing Arkansas' state tree.
This threat has consequences not only for the pine, but for the timber industry that planted large swaths of the tree decades before.
Forestry experts from across the region say they have several ideas about what's responsible for this new affliction. They've yet to establish concrete answers, though.
The mystery has kept researchers busy and timber companies anxious, as all wait to hear what testing of the affected trees might reveal.
Symptoms of the ailment appear to include a browning and dropping off of a pine's needles, and sometimes it ends in the death of the tree. Similar indicators have been seen in trees outside of Arkansas, including in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana, which are reporting similar symptoms, some as far back as 2017, according to state officials and other experts.
In Arkansas, that browning has spread across tens of thousands of acres of trees, mostly loblolly pines, Arkansas Department of Agriculture Division Forester Chandler Barton said in an email.
While some properties have lost timber, Barton said browning needles doesn't necessarily mean that trees are dead or will die. The state Department of Agriculture hasn't yet determined the scope of pine mortality.
FIRST WARNING SIGNS
"Late last year, communities in the Mississippi Delta lost many residential pine trees," Barton said. The browning has recently spread farther west into Ashley and Drew counties, according to the forester.
Max Braswell, president of the Arkansas Forestry Association, said his group also started to hear concerns from landowners late last year. At first, these came as scattered references, "just a conversation here or someone noticing something there," he said.
"And I don't think anyone necessarily put everything together where we felt like we had an issue that was more than, maybe, an isolated incident," Braswell added.
Mike Pennington, executive vice president of Monticello-based forestry and logging company L.D. Long Inc., described a visit he made to a plantation in the Delta last November.
"When I just saw the plantation I stopped and said, 'What the heck is going on?'" Pennington recalled. "Trees were dying from the top down. I'd never seen that."
He initially suspected an insect was to blame, such as the ips beetle or southern pine beetle, both of which can pose a significant threat to the trees. That wasn't the case, however.
Pennington contacted the University of Arkansas at Monticello College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources and reached a researcher who also thought a beetle might be the culprit, though that was ruled out.
Michael Blazier, dean of the college, said he was first approached about something strange happening to the area's trees in early April.
A forest landowner and his consulting forester came to the university and brought in a branch that "looked off," Blazier said. The branch had tiny brown stripes in its needles.
Blazier also started getting calls from foresters in Drew, Ashley and Bradley counties because their forests were starting to look sickly. Most were loblolly pines, particularly in forests that were opened and thinned in recent years through partial harvest, a practice meant to keep forests healthy. Often, the older needles on affected pine trees would turn brown and fall off. The newer needles would then begin browning. Some trees would increase production of their pine cones before, ultimately, dying.
The additional development of pine cones happens because, as trees' systems begin to shut down, they try to produce seeds "so they can at least pass their genetics on," he said.
DEMAND FOR WOOD
More than 56% of Arkansas is covered by trees, and forestry in these areas has a significant economic impact on the state, according to Braswell, whose organization represents the industry's efforts in the state.
Many everyday items rely at least in part on trees, from toothpaste and makeup to furniture and homes, he said. All told, Braswell said Americans get "about five thousand different products" from trees.
Besides manufactured products, Braswell also pointed to the other services trees provide, such as providing shelters for wildlife, filtering water and removing carbon dioxide from the air.
"This is a resource that we absolutely spend every day trying to take care of, and we don't want that forest health to be diminished for any reason," he said. "So that's why I think you'll see a significant effort to try to understand what's going on."
Arkansas State Forester Joe Fox said the loblolly pine, which has been hit the hardest by the ailment sweeping through south Arkansas, is also the "main tree" that has been planted in the region over much of the past century.
The shift started to occur in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many south Arkansas landowners, big and small, cut their naturally regenerating stands and replanted them with loblolly pines, according to the state forester. These landowners are now planting their third and fourth generations of loblollies.
Out of about 19 million acres of timberland throughout the state, roughly 3.4 million acres are pine plantations, Fox said.
BUSINESS, COMMUNITY IMPACT
The Forestry Caucus of the Arkansas General Assembly organized a meeting in Ashley County in mid-May to discuss the reports of pine needle browning and tree death.
Initially, the caucus planned for the meeting to be small, with several forestry experts and Ashley County Judge Jim Hudson taking part. However, several community members and other stakeholders asked to attend, and others learned of the meeting through social media, said state Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, who co-chairs the caucus. In the end, as many as 50 people came to the county courthouse in Hamburg to discuss the issue, according to Gilmore.
"I was told they were expecting maybe five to ten people at that meeting, but it was standing room only," said Blazier, who also attended the meeting.
Gilmore described the meeting as a "good listening session" that gave officials and experts a chance to hear from stakeholders in the community, and to reassure them that the state was working to determine the source of the pines' deteriorating health. In addition to the forestry caucus, the state Department of Agriculture and others who are in a position to respond to the issue, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' office has also gotten involved, he said.
"I think it's sort of all hands on deck at this point," he said.
Braswell said the response is so broad because the health of these trees is "vitally important."
Blazier said the loggers he spoke to were "absolutely nervous" because the sickness reflected in these trees affects their livelihoods.
"If they lose their forests, it'll be decades to get it back," Blazier said.
PotlatchDeltic owns about 952,000 acres of timberland in Arkansas, where it mainly grows southern yellow pine, according to the Washington-based company's website. The loblolly is among several species of southern yellow pine. However, a statement emailed Friday by company spokeswoman Anna Torma suggests damage to their trees has been minimal so far.
"At this time, we consider the impact to our timberlands as an immaterial percentage of our ownership," she wrote. "We will continue to monitor the spread and take the appropriate action if needed."
A map on PotlatchDeltic's website suggests its greatest concentrations of timberlands are just west of the areas that have been hardest hit by whatever is attacking the loblolly pines.
Gilmore said he had also seen and heard from other foresters and described their worry as "appropriate." Those concerns helped to spur the state to step up and take a more aggressive approach in investigating what is sickening the trees, according to the senator.
However, Gilmore said that what Arkansas has experienced so far hasn't exceeded the damage seen in other states, and he encouraged landowners not to panic. Instead, they should "keep level-headed" and continue sending samples to the Department of Agriculture and other local forestry officials.
Last week, the state Department of Agriculture announced the release of a survey for the public to report any tree discoloration or death they spot.
STRUGGLE TO DIAGNOSE
Numerous experts and other professionals in the field expressed surprise and bafflement at the sickness' spread across the region.
"What is it?" Braswell said. "Honestly, we don't know."
Fox said that, while he had seen significant damage on at least a couple of occasions in previous decades due to southern pine beetle infestations, he hasn't seen "anything like this in pine needles before."
Blazier likewise called the sickness of the loblolly pine "a pretty new scenario, and it's brand-new within Arkansas." This means experts have little in the way of existing research on the issue to look back on when trying to diagnose what's happening now.
The investigation by the Agriculture Department's Forestry Division involves a partnership with Blazier's College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service and the state Department of Agriculture's Plant Industries Division, according to the release.
Their immediate plan is to establish teams of Plant Industries inspectors and foresters in order to get samples, starting primarily in Ashley and Drew counties, Scott Bray, Plant Industries Division director, said on Wednesday. Foresters will cut the trees to be inspected, and the samples taken from them will be run through a U.S. Forest Service laboratory in Louisiana.
The Louisiana lab will search for signs of pathogens, while the Arkansas Agriculture Department is looking for the presence of pesticides and may conduct water sampling, according to Bray.
"Right now, we're not suspecting anything," he said. "We're just trying to more or less get a screen of what we're finding."
That hesitation to point to a culprit is reflected by other experts in the field. Though many suspect brown spot needle blight is in large part to blame for the sickness, they suspect multiple other factors are also at play.
Fox agreed, saying that various causes appear to be stacking on top of one another.
"My opinion is we're not going to figure out one thing," Fox said. "We're going to figure out a confluence of several factors, some of which has a lot to do with the weather. The anomalies of wet, wet, wet, wet, then dry."
The region saw as many as 10 "wet" years straight, then experienced a drought in October last year, according to the state forester. During these dry periods, trees that had grown accustomed to wet conditions begin "sucking for anything that's in the air around, and that could be brown spot needle blight fungus," Fox said. "Or it might be the little bit of chemical from the adjacent field. And then the ips beetle see the tree is struggling when they get in it, and pretty soon the tree is finished."
Blazier likewise said wet seasons produce ripe conditions for diseases to fungi to spread.
"Those are great conditions for plants to grow," he said. "But it's also great conditions for the ailments that will infect plants to grow, too."
Arkansas' state forester said the state is recommending prescribed burns where possible, to limit the spread of the sickness on loblolly pines. This will burn up the fungus underneath, Fox said.
Blazier said controlled burns in Alabama seem to have slowed the spread in forests there.
Despite widespread concern, Fox estimated that roughly 90% of the pine trees will make it through this attack.
Pennington is worried that the the sickness is going to lead to a rise in beetle infestations. Hundreds of acres of forest can be lost to the beetle if an attack isn't controlled properly, a guide developed by the state Department of Agriculture states. During "severe infestation years," the guide says cutting trees ahead of the infestation is "the only way to stop the spread."
Pennington also expressed concerns that mills may not take trees affected by the ailment currently sweeping through the southern part of the state, or that they will "fill up" if landowners cut and attempt to sell more timber out of fear that their tracts may grow sick.
However, even sick trees can be cut and sold until they die, according to Fox.
The Forestry Association is urging landowners to continue taking a measured, strategic approach to managing their forests as researchers work to uncover what's afflicting Arkansas' pine forests. They should make decisions about what to do with symptomatic trees on a "stand-by-stand basis," Braswell said.
"We don't want folks to go down and start cutting down all their trees because they're panicked about what might happen to them someday," he said. "The markets can't take that kind of fiber."
Braswell said the Forestry Association is also concerned about mills' capacities to process the timber sent to them, and the markets' willingness to buy. The state grows about 60% more hardwood and pine fiber annually than is harvested, according to Braswell.
Blazier added that landowners' ability to salvage their forests becomes increasingly hindered if the mills go on quota to the point that they become overloaded. That further perpetuates the disease, he said.
Gilmore also called for landowners to remain calm, pointing to other states that seem to be handling the issue, such as Alabama.
"The main thing is, let's understand what we're seeing and what the factors are that are causing it, and then let's work to address it," he said.
In the meantime, Bray, the Plant Industries Division director, said experts are ready to spread north and continue their research in other counties as needed.
"We're just going to see where it takes us," he said. "Just follow the evidence."
Members of the public can report pine tree discoloration and/or mortality by filling out this Department of Agriculture survey: arcg.is/1HyHCu0.