DENVER–Colorado lawmakers are pushing to reduce imminent fire danger by quickly clearing trees killed by the bark-beetle infestation.
Congressman Cory Gardner released a letter yesterday urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to work with state and federal agencies in fast-tracking plans to remove beetle-kill trees from Colorado forests, many of which are managed by the Forest Service.
“[I]t is imperative that we allow for expedited removal of bark beetle trees,” said Gardner in a letter dated July 5. “Members of Congress from Colorado are currently working on legislation that would facilitate more state control for removal of hazardous fuels. The legislation is necessary because we are in an emergency situation.
“If we do not move ahead, there will be a higher risk of fires spreading rapidly because of bark beetle infested forests,” said Gardner.
Gardner also called for a long-term forest management plan to “prevent the spread of bark beetle infestation to healthy forests, and also reduce public safety risks as seen by over 30,000 forced evacuations in Colorado alone.”
Meanwhile, Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty called for a coordinated tree-thinning effort by state and federal land managers in a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“[B]eetle kill poses the immediate threat of catastrophic wildfires that destroy ecosystems, pollute watersheds reserved for our drinking water, and lead to the loss of homes and, most devastatingly, the loss of life,” said McNulty in the letter.
The devastation wrought by the bark beetle over the past decade has turned many formerly green stands of lodgepole pine to red. Beetles are responsible for killing 41.7 million acres in the West, with more than four million of those in Colorado since 1996, according to a Forest Service report released in September 2011.
The report attributed the outbreak to drought, reductions in funding for tree-thinning, limited road access to the terrain, and public opposition to the timber industry.
Making matters worse is the density of the forests. State and federal forests that two decades ago held an average of 40 to 80 stems per acre are now packed with 400 to 1,200 stems, thanks to the rapid decline of the state logging industry as a result of falling timber prices and opposition from environmental groups.
The Gardner and McNulty letters represent the latest efforts by lawmakers to address the causes of this year’s devastating wildfire season. Previously lawmakers had focused on helping with the firefighting effort, aiding victims and soliciting federal assistance.
Indeed, Gardner was rebuked by Colorado Democratic Party chair Rick Palacio in June for suggesting that the federal roadless rule may have limited firefighters’ access to the High Park fire near Fort Collins. Palacio accused him of “politicizing” the wildfire.
While Gardner and McNulty are Republicans, the health of Colorado’s forests is a bipartisan issue. In June, Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall amended the 2012 Farm Bill to double the funding from $100 million to $200 million for removal of beetle-kill trees.
Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a longtime proponent of improving forest health and revitalizing the state’s logging industry, has called for creating economic incentives to encourage thinning, such as by broadening the state’s definition of renewable energy to include thermal and biomass driven by timber.
“We don’t have another way to resolve this–we must remove those fuels from our watersheds and forests,” said Schwartz. “We cannot put people and communities and infrastructure at risk, and we’re behind a lot of Western states when it comes to fire prevention.”
First, lawmakers will have to reckon with environmental groups. The movement has enjoyed huge success in blocking tree-cutting on federal and state lands by filing appeals and lawsuits to stop proposed Forest Service timber projects, citing damage to the ecosystem and species habitat.
Environmentalists have promoted the view that the bark-beetle outbreak was caused by global warming, and that the beetle-kill trees “have little or no effect on fire risk, and may actually reduce it in certain cases,” said Dominik Kulakowski, professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, in a 2010 report.
The Sierra Club’s “Fire Management on Public Lands” policy, adopted in 1989, states that fires are beneficial to many ecosystems and that the “occurrence of a fire does not justify salvage logging or road building in areas that are otherwise inappropriate for timber harvesting.”
Environmental groups and federal officials have cited global warming as a key driver in the intensity of this year’s Western wildfires. At a press conference Tuesday in Colorado Springs, Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano said climate change may have had an impact.
“It could be a lot of different things,” said Napolitano. “You have to look at climate change over a period of years, not just one summer. You can always have an abnormal summer, but when you see one after another after another, then you can see, yeah, there’s a pattern.”
At this point, said Schwartz, questions over whether global warming contributed to the wildfires should be less pressing than how to prevent them.
“We need to move beyond having a climate-change discussion,” said Schwartz. “Those temperatures are a reality. We need to talk about management. When you have 1,000 stems where there should be 40, you’re talking about a management of the landscape issue.”