The U.S. Forest Service will receive $40 million more to address public safety concerns and forest health needs arising from the millions of acres of dead and dying trees killed by bark beetles in the West, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter announced Tuesday.
“Forest lands play a critical role in providing clean water and a healthier climate for all Americans, and the USDA is committed to protecting and preserving this important resource from pests like the bark beetle,” said Vilsack. “These funds will help address the growing threat posed by the bark beetle to millions of acres of forests across the Western United States.”
The 10 year old bark beetle epidemic has increased the danger of dead and dying trees falling on roads, trails and recreation areas and also increased the wildfire risk to communities of the Rocky Mountain Region.
Forests in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota are experiencing bark beetle epidemics at an unprecedented scale, with two million acres of mountain forests in Colorado affected and an estimated three million more in jeopardy.
“The combined effects of massive bark beetle epidemics, the perennial risk of catastrophic wildfire, and a struggling forest industry have left forests throughout Colorado and other Western states at great risk,” Governor Ritter told reporters on a teleconference with Secretary Vilsack. “Our economy, communities, water supplies, property and citizens are threatened. Even in a tough economy like this, we cannot afford to ignore these challenges or these risks.”
Vilsack said the additional funding will be provided to the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region and other western Forest Service regions. Included in this total will be five million dollars of economic stimulus funding that the Forest Service has been using to reduce the threat of wildfires.
Just one-third of an inch long, the beetles burrow under the bark of pine trees to lay their eggs, feeding on the trees and preventing them from absorbing water. Fungi then grow within the trees, contributing to their death.
Bark beetles prefer forests that are old and dense, say beetle experts with the Colorado State University Extension. During early stages of an outbreak, attacks are limited largely to trees under stress from injury, poor site conditions, fire damage, overcrowding, root disease or old age. However, as beetle populations increase, attacks can spread to most large trees in the outbreak area.
Bark beetles have a one-year life cycle in Colorado, wintering under the bark and emerging in spring. Extreme cold temperatures that last for at least five days can reduce beetle populations, but climate change has reduced the frequency of such cold snaps, allowing the beetles to flourish and spread, the university says.
Vilsack said Tuesday that the new funding will help make forests more resilient to climate change.
Bark beetle treatments planned by the Forest Service range from preventative pesticide spraying and removal of dead trees in campgrounds and trailheads to keep them open to the public, to additional large scale timber sales designed to create openings in areas covered with dead pine. The Forest Service says openings in the forests can make large wildfires easier to control.
Logging operations to remove dead and dying trees are already taking place in many areas of Colorado, so roads and trails may be closed. Visitors to national forests can check the U.S. Forest Service website for information.
Hazardous fuel removal programs create great piles of woody debris that are removed by burning. Forest Service officials say pile burning only takes place when weather, snow cover and smoke dispersal conditions are favorable and consistent with the agency’s prescribed fire plan.
In a November 12 letter to Secretary Vilsack requesting additional funding, Governor Ritter said much of the beetle damage has been occurring at the headwaters of Colorado’s rivers and is spreading.
“In 2008,” wrote the governor, “a significant increase in infested ponderosa pine trees was also recorded as the epidemic began spreading to Colorado’s Front Range,” threatening more wildfires and trees falling on people, roads and water and power infrastructure.
“Regional Forester Rick Cables estimates that the costs of addressing these concerns on federal lands alone to be $49 million in FY 2010 and $55 million in FY 2011, a calculation that does not include any suppport to address equally critical needs on state and private lands,” the governor wrote.
He requested federal funding assistance to support and rejuvenate a dormant Colorado forest industry that can utilize the dead and dying trees.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said, “These funds will help the Forest Service address this significant public safety and forest health priority,” said the chief. “Employees of the Rocky Mountain Region and in other areas of the Forest Service will be able to make changes to their planned program of work in order to more aggressively focus on our bark beetle efforts.”
“Having new money to address forest health issues is welcome news,” said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Societys Colorado office. “Funding to get boots on the ground has been the limiting factor in getting numerous agreed-upon thinning and prescribed burning projects completed.”
“The important thing is that this money be spent responsibly on the priorities where there is widespread agreement,” said Jones, “reducing fuel loads in the wildland-urban interface to protect homes, communities and other important infrastructure and address safety concerns around campgrounds and along power lines and roads.”