With officials in Avalon, N.J., refusing to abort plans to cut down more than 100 Japanese black pine trees in the borough's 40-block dune forest, which they say are infested with a deadly beetle, a resident skeptical that the pines are dying is taking the issue to the federal level.
Martha Wright, 60, has submitted three complaints over the last month to the Government Accountability Office alleging that by accepting a federally funded grant of $24,000 from the state to remove the trees, Avalon is committing fraud and mismanaging federal funds.
Wright, who has a dozen Japanese black pines in her own yard and said she has read up "compulsively" on the southern pine beetle, said the borough and the state Department of Environmental Protection have not presented sufficient evidence that the trees are infested with the fast-moving, boring insect.
"I still maintain, as I have maintained since Day One, there is no southern pine beetle in the maritime forest," Wright said. The grant "is illegally being used to remove healthy trees or trees that may be stressed by some beetle other than the southern pine beetle."
On the other side of the debate are Joseph Lomax, the borough's longtime environmental consultant, and three DEP investigators who have said some of the trees are infested.
Lomax said Monday that Wright's allegation is false.
"The borough has provided a summary of the issue and factual information that demonstrates the irresponsibility and inaccuracy of the allegations," he said by email. Avalon business administrator Scott Wahl did not return requests for comment.
Earlier this month, Lomax said the affected trees will be removed this fall at the end of the tourism season, and some even sooner if they present a threat to passersby on the heavily trafficked 48th Street beach path before then. The felled Japanese black pines will be replaced, he said, by native species, including black oaks, white cedars, and sassafras.
Wright and others say Japanese black pines grow faster and taller, and do a better job of stabilizing the coastal dunes, than the replacement trees will.
A GAO spokesman said last week that the office likely will forward Wright's complaint to the inspector general at the Department of Agriculture.
Some residents have hired Mark Demitroff, a state certified tree expert, to examine the trees. Based on his examinations from a few feet back from the trees, Demitroff said, he does not believe there is an infestation, but he has not been allowed to examine the trees up close, as entering the fenced-off dunes carries a $2,000 fine.
Residents have asked that the borough waive this restriction, but it has not. Asked why, Wahl has said the borough "trusts our experts."
"No further evaluation of the dunes or the trees is necessary," Wahl said.
In a resolution, the borough council rejected challenges to Lomax's qualifications, saying he has a graduate degree in entomology, had done advanced studies in ecology, and had previously served as an ecologist for the state.
With the borough insisting the matter is closed, residents have turned to other channels.
After a DEP spokesman told the Inquirer last month that the agency had "unquestionable evidence" of the infestation, residents, along with Demitroff, submitted a public records request seeking that evidence.
The DEP sent five photos, of which two showed a yellowish-white "pitch tube" - sap expelled by the tree in response to an infestation. Matt Coefer, who handles records requests for the agency, and spokesman Larry Hajna said those photographs were the only visual evidence available of the infestation.
"They said it's 'unquestionable evidence,' " Wright said. "Well, I have questions."
No beetles were found during the inspection, but that is not uncommon, according to the DEP.
The DEP declined to make any of the three investigators who examined the trees available for an interview.
None of the DEP's photos demonstrates "galleries," the trademark pathways southern pine beetles leave behind in trees they have invaded, according to Hajna and others. Wright said that any documentation of galleries would convince her of the infestation.
But with the fell date approaching, residents opposed to removing the trees have begun to worry. Many spoke out against the borough's plan at a council meeting June 22, but Nancy Hudanich, now council president, said the meeting would be "the final discussion on these meritless issues."
Elaine Scattergood, who has lived in Avalon for more than 50 years, said she plans to chain herself to a cluster of three large Japanese black pines close to the beach.
"If I can save a tree, I'll do it," she said. "I think it's high time."
Wright said: "It is not my intention to prove the borough wrong; it is not my intention to prove Lomax wrong; it is not my intention to prove the DEP wrong. It is really, truly my intention to save those healthy trees."