Millions of acres of Western forests already killed
DENVER (AP) -- The insect infestation that has killed millions of pine trees is one of the West's "biggest natural disasters," says U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, sponsor of a bill to give forest managers more ways to respond to the outbreak.
The Colorado Democrat said Monday, Nov. 23, that the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, would allow the U.S. Forest Service to identify high-priority areas and expedite analysis of proposed treatments. The bill would expand and make permanent programs allowing the Forest Service to contract with state foresters and treat trees that aren't of high commercial value.
"This is one of the biggest natural disasters we face in the West," Udall said.
More than 2.5 million acres of pine trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming have been killed by tiny beetles that burrow under the bark and lay their eggs, turning the green needles to the color of rust as they feed on the tree and restrict its ability to draw water. Other Western states with beetle infestations are Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.
A national management team helping the Forest Service will concentrate on the heaviest-hit forests in Wyoming and Colorado. The Forest Service has proposed shifting funds from other regional forests to deal with the infestation.
Federal officials say the stands of dead trees could fuel catastrophic wildfires. Falling trees could topple hundreds of miles of power lines and injure people.
"We face threats to our lives and livelihoods," Udall said.
The bill, introduced last week, doesn't provide additional funding, Udall said, but provides additional tools to the Forest Service to battle the pine beetles.
Among the tools would be the ability to designate "insect emergency areas" where the Forest Service could set priorities and expedite analysis of treatments. The bill would expand a program in Colorado and Utah that allows the Forest Service to contract with state foresters to reduce the threat of wildfire around homes and private property where landowners have done work.
The proposal would authorize the Forest Service to offer incentives through the federal farm bill and other laws to convert beetle-killed trees into biofuels.
The bugs have infested forests in some of the region's most scenic areas, including Colorado mountain resorts and Rocky Mountain National Park.
While bark beetle infestations are considered part of natural cycles, experts say drought and warmer temperatures are worsening the current outbreak.
The region hasn't had prolonged freezing temperatures that would help kill the bugs, and drought has weakened the trees.
Rick Cables, head of the regional Forest Service office in Denver, testified before a U.S. House panel in June that water supplies for 33 million people in the West could be endangered if millions of acres of beetle-devastated trees catch fire. The Colorado River headwaters are in some of the most ravaged areas.