5:44 am - Tuesday September 19, 2017

Is Bark Beetle the Culprit in Colorado Wildfires?

 The scenes are dramatic – fires destroying homes and forests across Colorado, at times just miles from trees killed by bark beetle infestations.

Some in Congress have come up with a plan they say will help prevent future fires. The Healthy Forest Management Act (HR 6089) gets its first reading today (Friday) in a U.S. House subcommittee. The bill increases state control for management of such activities as timber harvests on federal lands, and authorizes road-building in all roadless areas except for wilderness, with the idea that the dead wood will be cleared more easily.

But Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Colorado-based Wilderness Workshop, questions the wisdom of that plan. He points out that the beetle-kill trees need to be harvested quickly – and most are too small for commercial use.

“The wood can’t pay its way out of the forest. The type of work that needs to be done in lodgepole pine is clearing out a lot of deadfall. It just has very low economic value.”

A better solution, says Shoemaker, is to focus on getting rid of scraggly, underdeveloped pines and other overgrown foliage near inhabited areas. Of the 168 homes destroyed in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire, for instance, a U.S. Forest Service report found 83 percent burned because of those specific types of growth too close to the homes.

The Healthy Forest Management Act is sponsored by Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton (R-3rd District). He says our nation’s forests have been plagued by years of mismanagement.

“The forest rangers that I have talked to said that we are, right now, paying the price for about 100 years of bad forest management – that we need to be able to get in and treat some of these areas.”

Shoemaker counters the problem isn’t mismanagement, but a lack of federal funding to do the sorts of work needed to improve forest health. He doesn’t think transferring the responsibility to the states will solve the issue.

“Last I checked, our state was in a budget crisis, and we’re talking about what roads to leave potholes in. I just don’t see the state having the resources to take over management of federal public lands.”

He adds that while the High Park fire was in beetle-kill land – in Waldo Canyon, it was burning in non-beetle-kill areas.

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