AVALON — The borough cut down about 210 Japanese black pine trees on the maritime dunes, despite months of opposition by a residents’ group.

Opponents of the tree removal said the pines were healthy and important for the dunes’ integrity, while the borough said some were infested with southern pine beetles and all needed to be removed to prevent further spread.

Borough Administrator Scott Wahl said the tree cutting began Tuesday and finished Wednesday. The work was performed by the Department of Public Works and Bayshore Landscaping, of North Cape May, he said.

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The borough got a $24,000 federal grant to combat the southern pine beetle, a rapidly spreading insect that quickly kills pine trees. The grant was funneled through the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Avalon’s maritime forest, one of the last in New Jersey, runs from about 32nd to 58th streets along the beachfront.

Wahl said the goal was to remove Japanese black pine trees that were within 100 feet of the dune paths on 48th Street and 50th Street and a few along Dune Drive in that area.

DEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske said the state is confident the southern pine beetle has been there for about two years after its forestry experts visited the site and found evidence of it in some trees.

But she also said the beetles don’t have to be there for the borough to use the grant.

“It provides for suppression and/or prevention of southern pine beetle infestation,” she said. “It’s up to Avalon to decide whether or not to remove trees.”

Some trees were removed last year in a smaller effort.

Avalon plans to replace the pines with native oak trees, Eastern red cedars, American holly, persimmon, bayberry and beach plum, its consultant, Joseph Lomax, vice president of the Lomax Consulting Group, has said.

Wahl said Lomax will present the borough with a reforesting plan that will result in additional plantings of native vegetation by March.

The grant requires the borough to leave stumps and root systems in place to stabilize the dunes.

Resident Martha Wright said she filed a federal fraud complaint, alleging the borough is improperly using federal funds intended to fight the southern pine beetle to remove healthy trees.

“There are squiggly marks the southern pine beetle leaves. You can peel the bark off the tree and see it,” said Wright. “It seems to me with 150 trees they could point to one, peel the bark off and show it to us.

“They have not been able to produce that. They have not been able to produce a beetle,” Wright said.

She and other residents opposed to the cutting believe the borough is removing the trees to improve the ocean views of beachfront homeowners.

She said the borough produced a photo of a dripping hole in a tree infected with blue fungus, but it was identified by certified tree expert Mark Demitroff, of Buena Vista Township, as “indicative of the turpentine beetle.”

The Lomax firm wrote a dune vegetation management plan for the borough in 2009 that recommended replacing non-native Japanese black pine with native species. It said the pine was taking over too much of the dune system and its dropped needles presented a fire hazard.

“The barrier islands don’t have enough trees to begin with,” said Wright. “Where are migratory birds going to rest and replenish? This runs counter to tourism.”

Wright filed an initial complaint with the General Accounting Office’s fraud unit, she said, and the GAO forwarded it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We may not have the ability to stop it, but other shore towns need to look very carefully at what has happened here,” said Tom Evaul, a year-round resident who lives on 47th street, a block from the dunes. “If nothing else comes of it, it’s important that other towns not be foolish.”

His next-door neighbor, Frank McCloughlin, said the dunes protect all the properties on the island, and they will only become more important as sea levels rise.

The Japanese black pines were planted in the dunes after a devastating 1962 nor’easter. At 48th Street, they grew taller than the bayberry and American holly and provided welcome shade on the trail.

“It’s an absolute massacre of trees,” said 40-year resident Elaine Scattergood. “It’s hard to see it go for this.”

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Contact: 609-272-7219 MPost@pressofac.com Twitter @MichelleBPost Facebook.com/EnvironmentSouthJersey

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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