Scientist: Money to fight beetles as fire mitigation not productive

Scientist: Money to fight beetles as fire mitigation not productive

23 April 2010

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USA —    Insect infestations are not the major cause of forest fires in Colorado, and allocating federal assistance to combat the critters would be unproductive, one scientist has told a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

“The best available science indicates that outbreaks of mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle do not increase the risk of fire in most types of forests,” said Dominik Kulakowski, testifying Wednesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.

The subcommittee received testimony on the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act of 2009, among four public lands bills considered during the two-hour hearing. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., introduced the forest legislation last November.

Udall’s bill, in part, seeks to provide increased federal assistance to 12 “affected” Western states, including Colorado, which have large numbers of forest lands containing disease-ridden trees caused by beetle outbreaks and other insect infestations.

The federal assistance could include funding to help state and local governments mitigate the beetle infestations, the presence of which increases the risk of forest wildfires that endanger surrounding communities and infrastructure, said supporters of the bill.

Kulakowski, a former research scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and current professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, discounted this notion during his testimony. He said climate, not insects, plays the most important role in forest fires, as wildfires are more likely to occur during droughts.

Scientific evidence indicates that fires do not burn more quickly or more severely in dead, disease-ridden forests than in dense, live forests under current climate conditions, Kulakowski said.

Udall was not persuaded by Kulakowski’s argument. He said he continues to probe what he called “counterintuitive conclusions” that many scientists have drawn.

Kulakowski has studied the connection between beetle infestation and forest fires and disease for more than 10 years and based his testimony on his own research as well as several other independent studies.

The presence of flammable materials and the failure to use fire-resistant materials in home construction also enhance fire risk in forests and surrounding communities, Kulakowski said.

Colorado state Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, also testified to the subcommittee. He said Udall’s bill would help fire prevention in and around Colorado forests.

“I have seen firsthand the difference between fires in an area where lands have been proactively managed and those that have not,” said Gibbs, who is also a Type II wildland firefighter.

The federal support for insect mitigation also would help improve the long-term appearance and health of Colorado forests, Gibbs said.

“The bark beetle epidemic is changing Colorado and the West,” he said. “Visitors in my state often remark about the mountainsides of red trees and I have tell to them ‘because it’s all dead.'”

The Obama administration supports the larger objectives of the bill, which include improving tree health, maintaining safe drinking water and protecting communities and infrastructure from falling trees, said Harris Sherman, undersecretary of natural resources and environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“This bill first of all deals with this situation on a comprehensive, regional basis. We applaud that because it transcends individual states, and it deals with a collective problem across the western United States,” Sherman said. Sherman said the administration does have “some concerns with certain aspects of this legislation,” which he hopes to work with members of the committee and senatorial staff to address.

For example, the bill would designate forest areas with high numbers of insect infestations and diseased trees as “emergency areas,” a process that Sherman said may be too broad and may circumvent current laws and practices.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, introduced the companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives last December. Though no action has been taken on his legislation since being referred to subcommittee in January, Salazar is pleased the Senate hearing Wednesday brought attention to the issue.

“The Senate hearing is a step forward in the fight, and I’m confident we’ll continue moving forward,” Salazar said in an e-mail.

Jeremy Walsh is an intern from American University in Washington, D.C.

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