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Mitigating Needle Blight: Project Information

Pine forests and industrial wood plantations in the southeastern U.S. are crucial for the region's economic sustainability. In 2020, Alabama forestry sales of forest products and related sectors totaled more than $11 billion. The sustainability and profitability of these pine forests and industrial wood plantations rely on optimal tree growth. However, the continued introduction of non-native insect pests and fungal pathogens, as well as the movement of native forest pests into forest ecosystems, can result in significant economic impacts. Costs associated with damage caused by non-native pests and pathogens within forests throughout the U.S. in 2000 were estimated to be valued at approximately $4.2 billion annually. Consequently, insect pests and fungal diseases are a great concern to the forest industry.

There has been an increase of reports throughout Alabama and the southeastern U.S. of a suite of needle blight pathogens over the past ten years. This problem may not only occur on a large regional scale but also on isolated acreages, which is vital as the majority of the seven million acres of pines in Alabama are privately owned. With over one-third of the counties in Alabama currently affected, it is estimated that a 50% needle blight infection rate in Alabama's susceptible loblolly pine trees could result in economic losses of $2 billion. An investment in mitigating forest pests, such as those associated with needle blight requires adaptive management geared to prevention and remediation that provide economically sound solutions.

This work is not meant to replace any research that is currently underway focused on developing solutions, but rather is aimed at determining the actual impacts on productivity and biological cause(s) of needle blight so that landowners and forest managers may more precisely predict future timber revenues from affected stands and adjust management activities accordingly.


Supporting Objectives
1. A collection of factors to account for losses (tree death as well as predicted growth losses) from brown spot needle blight in loblolly in productivity models.
2. An improved understanding of the interactive effect of fungal infection, stand environment, and tree physiology on loblolly pine sustainability which is required for developing remedial actions and productivity models for trees and stands already affected.
3. The levels of infection that are acceptable (minimal growth loss and low probability of mortality) and those that fall above the damage thresholds.
4. An understanding of tree-level infection levels.
5. An understanding of the genetic variability of the fungus and how it is related to infection level and severity. A screening protocol for testing seedlings to find families tolerant to the pathogen.
6. Distribution and movement of the pathogen across the southeast.

Mitigating Needle Blight: Project Components
Component 1: Inoculation protocol development for Lecanosticta acicola to develop a screening method to determine strain aggressiveness and seedling tolerance Fungal Isolation and Identification.
Component 2: Environmental factors that drive the emergence and severity of infection from Lecanosticta acicola across Alabama.
Component 3: Detection and movement of Lecanosticta acicola with remote sensing.
Component 4: Genetic diversity of Lecanosticta acicola, pathogen origins, and invasion history.