Bark beetles raise danger of wildfire |

Bark beetles raise danger of wildfire

Mark Udall and John Salazar

Large parts of Colorado’s forests are experiencing a major infestation of Mountain Pine Beetles. Driving in the valleys of the Fraser or Gunnison rivers, or along I-70 west of the Eisenhower Tunnel, you can see the evidence in the form of rust -colored trees. And there will be more because the areas of infestation are spreading. These beetles burrow into a tree’s bark and lay eggs that hatch into wood-eating larvae, and also carry a blue fungus that weakens the tree. The combination too often kills the tree, especially where forests have been weakened by drought or other stresses. When the larvae mature into beetles, they take wing to seek other trees where the destructive cycle begins anew.Beetles, like forest fires, are a natural part of the forest ecology. For thousands of years, fires and insects have helped shape the forests by thinning dense tree stands and promoting cyclical regrowth. We cannot eliminate these natural processes, nor should we try.But today, more than in the past, large stands of beetle-killed trees pose a threat of severe wildfires, putting lives and property at risk in many Colorado communities. There are several reasons for this increased danger. First, a century-long policy of suppressing even small fires on federal lands, combined with a more recent and gradual reduction of timber harvesting, has resulted in many dense stands of even-aged trees ripe for unusually large-scale wildfires. Second, pronounced drought has weakened trees and made them more susceptible to both wildfire and insects. Finally, population growth in mountain communities, as well as the development of ski areas and other recreational facilities, means there are more people, homes and businesses at risk.There are some ways to respond to drought, including research on beneficial weather modification. But any payoff will come slowly. So, higher priority must go to steps to reduce the immediate threat to our communities. That means better forest management and reduction of built-up fuels, including beetle-killed trees.Already, our forests are being better managed. The Forest Service, BLM, and other land managers recognize that because fire is part of forest ecology, not every fire should be put out.Congress, with enactment of the Healthy Forests Act of 2003, has rightly put more emphasis on reducing the volume of fuel – including trees already dead or dying because of beetles and other causes – that can feed the most severe fires that threaten communities.The Bush administration has touted the new law, but has not met the promise of better management with necessary funding. We cannot continue to nickel-and-dime the Forest Service. Even as we strive to balance the federal budget and cut unnecessary funding, it is penny wise and pound foolish to starve the Forest Service of needed funds.In addition to public funding, we must renew incentives for greater involvement by the private sector. Removed fuel – including small green trees, underbrush, and beetle-killed trees – can be put to good uses for wood products or as an energy source. And while the economics are tough for a sustained timber industry in Colorado, we believe it makes sense to encourage this partnership. We cannot escape the fact that thinning forests to reduce fuel is expensive and time consuming, especially in areas like Colorado that do not have large commercial timber industries. A lack of adequate funding by Congress, combined with escalating numbers of beetle-affected trees, means that unless things change, the risks to our communities will grow not lessen. To avoid this, action is required. Part of the response should be legislation to improve the workings of current law. We want to focus on cutting the red tape that complicates efforts to do needed thinning. And we want to include private industry, state and local governments in helping with the needed work. We invite Coloradans to provide us with their suggestions and join us in working together to address this problem. We will always have some rust-colored trees in Colorado forests, and we will always have fire. What we need are ways to appropriately manage and live with these natural processes so neither becomes catastrophic. It will take some new ways of thinking and new partnerships, but together we can protect our communities and secure a resource that is critical to Colorado’s future. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, is Eagle County’s U.S. representative in Congress. Democrat John Salazar is a U.S. senator from Colorado. Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism