Udall visits Dillon for update on mountain pine beetle fight
Summit County correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
DILLON, Colorado – Saying he’s “on the case,” U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) was in Dillon Sunday to have a first-hand look at devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle and to reassure local officials help is on the way.
Udall met with state Sen. Dan Gibbs, U.S. Forest Service district ranger Jan Cutts and others on the site of a clear-cut on Denver Water land near the Tenderfoot Trail in Dillon. There, Udall stood on a thick carpet of felled lodgepole pines and got an update from Cutts, Gibbs and the Dillon Ranger District’s Paul Semmer on local efforts to address the slow-moving pine-beetle crisis. Udall said the $30 million he’s helped appropriate to address the problem will soon start to be felt as a comprehensive plan falls into place.
“It’s an interesting phase we’re in now, from the dying-off to the falling down,” Udall said, noting the figure of 100,000 beetle-kill lodgepoles falling daily across the West. “The forest will return, but not necessarily based on human lifestyle or aesthetic expectations.”
In addition to the $30 million already in place, Udall said he’d like to appropriate another $50 million to tackle the large-scale problem. Seeing firsthand an area that’s already been treated, he said, gives him an idea of the scope of the job ahead. Pushing for more money on Capitol Hill these days, he said, is not easy.
“The country has enormous challenges, from a recession to two wars,” Udall said. “As important as this is to all of us in the West, it’s not as important to others.”
Udall said he’s working with other senators in the West, as well as state legislators, to help get a louder voice behind the pine-beetle issue.
Standing under Xcel power lines that run through a dying forest Sunday, Forest Service officials talked about the work that’s been done to pull together one large “NEPA” process for some 15 different utilities along 550 miles of power lines. NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act, the process under which projects on public land are reviewed. Typically, the different utilities would all have to get their own NEPA approved, but the beetle-kill emergency has prompted the Forest Service to help expedite the process. Cal Wettstein, the Forest Service’s incident commander for bark beetle response in the West, told Udall they’re only a week or so away now from a “decision notice,” after which, presumably, work could begin in earnest in the forests affected by the pine beetle.
“We’re ready to roll,” Wettstein said, adding that the Forest Service has also waived permit fees for the utilities.
But that may be small comfort to utilities like Xcel Energy, which face millions of dollars in removal costs as they try to protect their power lines from falling trees. Wettstein said that, typically, the permittee pays for such removal – in this case the utilities. Given the scope of the job, however, officials are looking for additional sources of funding to assist the utilities. Udall said it’s something he’ll put increased focus on in the coming year.
“My take-away today is to figure out the cost of all this, who can be called upon to bear these costs and look at any potential legislative action to help with that,” Udall said.
Hearing from Gibbs about the seemingly weak market for the timber that’s dead or falling, Udall said another issue is to identify any potential subsidies to help with that. Gibbs said building coalitions of different stakeholders may prove valuable, since it appears clear no single entity can tackle the problem on its own.
For Udall, the way forward includes more discussions with western senators and legislative action that could free up more dollars.
“I’d like to add another $50 million to the Forest Service’s budget for this,” Udall said, gesturing at downed trees. “I have the power to add that to an appropriations bill. I also want to push the Department of the Interior to put the money we’ve given them already to use.”
As Wettstein asked the group if they’d heard the tree that just fell in the forest, Udall underscored the ongoing nature of the West’s pine-beetle battle and the quest for funds to combat it.
“We’ll keep banging the drum, but we also want to find more people to help us bang it,” he said.