Beetles set off alarm

Beetles set off alarm

9 December 2006

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USA — The increased wildfire threat created by millions of beetle-killedColorado pines could be the “Katrina of the West,” Sen. Ken Salazarwarned about 150 community leaders who gathered in this mountain town Friday.

Forest managers and mountain communities must work together to reduce thefire threat which – if unchecked – could lead to “Hayman-like fires”in the future, the Colorado Democrat told a standing-room-only crowd. He spokeby telephone from Washington, D.C.

Colorado’s Hayman Fire of June 2002 burned 137,000 acres and destroyed 133homes.

The number of Colorado lodgepole pines killed by bark beetles jumped nearlyfivefold in 2006 as the explosive, decade-long bug epidemic continued to gainsteam.

About 4.8 million lodgepoles were killed this year, up from about 1 milliontrees last year, U.S. Forest Service entomologists say.

The lodgepole acreage under attack by mountain pine beetles jumped about 50percent this year to 644,840 acres, up from 430,526 acres last year.

Ground zero is north-central Colorado’s mountain forests.

Bark beetles are expected to kill nearly all the large lodgepoles there, andit will take a century for a mature forest to return, said researchsilviculturist Wayne Shepperd of the U.S. Forest Service.

Salazar sponsored Friday’s forum, which brought together local governmentofficials, energy-industry experts and forest managers to explore new ways touse beetle-killed wood removed from Colorado forests in the coming decades.

“This is a long-term issue for all of us,” Salazar said. “It’sa very, very serious problem.”

The goal is to create new markets for the dead wood, so that local economieswill benefit while the wildfire threat is lessened, he said.

The Forest Service spends $25 million to $30 million annually to thin overlydense stands, remove dead trees, ignite prescribed fires, and perform other”fuel treatments” in Colorado’s national forests, Regional ForesterRick Cables said.

Between 75,000 and 100,000 forest acres are treated annually in Colorado.

“We can only touch a fraction of it,” Cables said. The preservationefforts are focused on saving mountain communities, ski areas, campgrounds andhighly valued scenic areas.

Given federal budget constraints, funding for those projects is unlikely toincrease, Cables said.

That’s why it’s so important to create new markets for beetle-killed trees,he said. That way, more mountain communities will be able to hire contractors toremove beetle-killed timber, “and the value of the material pays thecontractor,” he said.

One promising approach is to use wood chips from beetle-killed trees to fireboilers that heat municipal buildings.

Hundreds of these “biomass heating systems” have sprung up over thelast 30 or 40 years, mostly in the eastern United States, said Randy Hunsberger,a senior energy engineer at McNeil Technologies.

The technology has been creeping westward, and three existing or plannedColorado systems were discussed at Friday’s forum.

Boulder County now heats a five-building, 95,000-square-foot county complexwith a biomass heating system that uses wood chips from local forest-thinningprojects, said Therese Glowacki of the county’s parks and open space department.

The system, which cost $280,000 and burns 650 tons of wood a year, justcompleted its first year of operation. It is expected to pay for itself -through saved energy costs – in about a decade, Glowacki said.

“There is more interest in this sort of thing than we’ve ever seen, andthe need is huge,” said Don Carroll, deputy forest supervisor at thebeetle-ravaged White River National Forest. It includes the Vail, Keystone,Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Beaver Creek and Aspen skiresorts.

At Friday’s meeting, regional forester Cables dismissed the findings of arecent Colorado State University study, which argued that Colorado’s beetleepidemics are part of a natural process. The report, written by William Rommeand his colleagues, said the widely held belief that massive insect outbreaksset the stage for extreme wildfires “is not well supported and may in factbe incorrect.”

Cables said a century of wildfire suppression in national forests, combinedwith unusually warm, dry weather has created “the best bug habitat theworld has ever seen.”

“It’s not natural, and we need to intervene,” he said. “Thebeetle epidemic is caused by major forces beyond our control. We can no morestop it than we can stop a hurricane.

“And for decades to come, the fire risk in these areas is going to beextremely high,” Cables said. “The challenge is to protect criticalvalues like homes, watersheds, roads, power lines and recreation areas.”

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