Vail Valley Voices: Bark beetle mania
Vail, CO, Colorado
Vast swaths of Colorado’s lodgepole forests are tinder dry on account of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, ready to ignite and possibly consume thousands of acres.
Unfortunately, many of those dead tree stands surround Colorado’s growing mountain communities and vital assets. In the five-county epicenter of the infestation, there are:
n 12 incorporated municipalities within impacted forest, and another 11 adjacent to forest lands.
n 28 incorporated municipalities that derive most of their drinking water from sources that flow through dead and dying forests.
n 2,000 miles of roadways jeopardized by dead trees.
n 1,500 miles of hiking and biking trails that might need to be closed this year.
n 52 emergency communications sites at risk.
n The Colorado River, which supplies Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Southern California with water.
n 633 miles of electrical transmission lines and 1,300 miles of electrical distribution lines ” which includes major lines that feed power to the entire western United States ” at-risk from falling trees and fire.
I continue to emphasize and educate policy makers on the final two points in particular: the potential for regional power and communications network failures resulting from fire.
For example, if the wrong transformer or power line were knocked out, it could initiate a fire that causes a cascading blackout across the entire American West. A power outage of that scale, which is not unprecedented , would cost billions of dollars to correct. And one could only imagine the devastation to our communities and our agriculture if the Colorado River became overburdened with refuse from a fire.
Colorado’s mountain communities bear much of the burden, but certainly not all of it. Put plainly, the bark beetle epidemic poses very real threats to our national economy and our national security.
Millions of people in Colorado and beyond depend on our water. And tens of millions across the west depend on the power that flows through our impacted lands.
I stressed the scope of the infestation a couple of weeks ago when I was in Washington, D.C. I travelled with local officials, including state Sen. Dan Gibbs, Summit County Commissioner Bob French, Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon, Colorado State Forrester Jeff Jahnke and others to stress the severity of the crisis.
While there, we met with Colorado’s congressional delegation and officials from the new Obama administration, including the Department of Homeland Security.
Many in Washington are beginning to see the urgency of the situation. Our congressional delegation has uniformly committed to seeking any emergency fire mitigation funds that are available. And we have assured allies in the new administration, including Ken Salazar at the Department of the Interior and Janet Napolitano at the Department of Homeland Security.
However, we have a long way to go. The U.S. Forest Service pegs Colorado’s estimated need at more than $200 million. Despite growing awareness, we are still not getting enough funding to cope with the crisis. We need to keep the pressure on at the federal level and cannot allow this issue to get lost in layers of bureaucracy.
Locally, we continue our efforts to mitigate the threat of wildfires with limited resources, creating a number of unique collaborations between state and local government, as well as private industry to speed dead tree removal and improve core safety protocols in the event a fire does happen. Recently, I passed three forest health bills out of committee to improve wildlife preparedness plans and counties capacity to fight fires, and to provide start-up money to businesses that assist in tree removal and forest restoration.
I’m glad we’re moving in the right direction. But we have a long way to go.
Christine Scanlan is Eagle County’s representative in the state House.