The spread of a burrowing insect that kills pine trees slowed down in 2012, according to a report released this week by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Last year, the Southern pine beetle affected only 6,200 acres, compared with 7,000 acres in 2011 and 14,000 acres in 2010, the DEP said in its report. The vast majority of the affected pine forest acreage was in areas of the Pinelands National Reserve south of the Mullica River.

Pine beetles, which are about the size of a grain of rice, will burrow into a tree just beneath the bark in order to lay eggs. The tunnels created cut off water and nutrients to the tree, causing death within a few weeks of the infestation. Forestry experts had thought that 2012 would see a significant uptick in the expanse of the beetle’s infestation due to a mild winter with few freezing days that typically kill off the insect, which thrives in warmer climates.

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State forestry workers, assisted by several federal programs, have used different methods to fight the infestation on public and private land in the Pinelands region, including hand-cutting affected stands of trees in Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties. However, in areas south of the Mullica River, particularly in Cape May and Cumberland counties, where larger swaths of trees were affected, the agency had contractors use bulldozers and other equipment to remove trees from state land, according to the news release.

New Jersey Sierra Club president Jeff Tittel said news of the smaller-than-expected outbreak showed that the infestation is subsiding.

Tittel was originally concerned the infestation would become an excuse to allow for logging in the Pinelands and southern New Jersey. He said in a prepared statement that clearing buffers and doing other tree removals in the Pinelands should be placed on hold to preserve forest biodiversity while the infestation is being addressed.

“We should only be cutting trees that are infested and leaving our non-infested, healthy trees untouched," Tittel said.

The state has partnered with Rutgers University, Stockton College and Dartmouth University researchers to better understand how to reduce the pine beetle’s threat.

“We were very fortunate last year. Our containment was effective while adequate precipitation helped pine trees produce sufficient sap to help push out beetles that try to burrow into the trees,” State Forester Lynn Fleming said in a news release, adding that the scope of its impact “will likely hinge on environmental factors, weather patterns in particular, that are outside of our control.”

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