Nearly 7,000 acres were lost to southern pine beetle infestations in 2011 and 14,000 acres were destroyed the year before.

With the mild winter we've had in New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection is starting earlier than ever to combat the pest, which is showing signs of early activity. Suppression grants are available to private landowners, municipalities, counties and local groups.

Currently, 26 municipalities in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties have been notified that they appear to have infestations. Spotty pine beetle activity has been detected in areas as far north as Ocean County.

"We've started aerial surveillance flights and have begun cutting infested trees on state lands due to early activity," said DEP Spokesman Lawrence Hajna. "We don't know how bad it's going to be this year, but we are very concerned because of the pine beetles are remaining active. Usually the cold winter temperatures keep them dormant or kill many of them off. That hasn't been the case this year."

"The beetles are about the size of a grain of rice and they burrough into the life-giving cambium layer of pine trees and creates networks of tunnels that cut off nutrients to the trees themselves," said Hajna. Infestations are marked by the sudden onset of yellowish needles that quickly turn brown. The bark of infested trees may show numerous excretions of yellowish-white sap oozing from tubes that the beetles bore into the bark.

The New Jersey Forest Service is using $315,000 from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service grant program to fund three local grant programs to combat the southern pine beetle. For more information on the grants, visit www.southernpinebeetle.nj.gov.