They`re tiny, but they leave a lot of damage and debate in their wake. And their next stop appears to be the northern Front Range.
There is fresh debate about what to do with the millions of acres of pine trees in the West that have been destroyed by the mountain pine beetle. And it is a debate that is bleeding over into a battle about how to best protect Colorado’s roadless areas.
Aerial maps showing the mountain pine beetle epidemic since it started in 1996 reveal that it has spread like a cancer through the northern central mountains of Colorado. And officials say the beetles appear to be moving north and east, meaning that parts of Boulder County may be in their sights. They recently invaded Larimer County, where the number of acres of affected lodgepole pine more than doubled last year, compared to 2008. Officials say as many as 100,000 beetle-kill pine trees fall every day in a 3.5 million acre area along the Colorado-Wyoming border.
It’s too late to do much to stop them, and once they’ve turned a pine forest from a lovely green to that ugly reddish brown, the question becomes, “What we should do with all of those dead trees?” One response has been to log or at least thin the dead forests, in the name of reducing the risk of forest fires. Surely all of those dead trees are a tinderbox just waiting for a spark, right?
Recently a group of scientists blew the whistle and said not so fast. In a report titled “Insects and Roadless Forests: A Scientific Review of Causes, Consequences and Management Alternatives,” four researchers concluded that the fire danger in beetlekill pine forests has been greatly exaggerated.
According to the report, released earlier this spring, the chances of widespread fire among those dead trees is the same as — or, as only a few studies indicate, slightly higher than — in live, green pine forests.
The report also found that logging or thinning in secluded roadless areas neither controls future beetle outbreaks nor helps protect communities and homes from forest fires. The key to protecting inhabited areas from fire damage, the scientists say, is to clear the immediate area — about 120 feet — around homes and other structures. And the environmental damage that is done by building roads into the backcountry wilderness to log or thin beetle-kill pine far outweighs any fire-prevention benefits, they say in their report.
Congress takes notice Last week, a subcommittee of the U.S. House heard testimony on a bill being co-sponsored by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall that calls for the U.S. Forest Service to identify severe beetle-kill areas and work with state and local landowners to remove the dead trees. But one of the authors of the recent scientific report, Dominik Kulakowski, presented the counterarguments of his group’s study, telling lawmakers that climate conditions are the primary driver of forest fires, not dead trees. He testified that canopy density — which is obviously decreased as dead trees lose their needles and branches — is actually a more instrumental factor in the spread of forest fires.
“My concern is that by focusing treatments in remote forests, we will be using up limited funds and resources while leaving homes and communities at risk of wildfire,” he told the subcommittee. “Doing so would be like beginning surgery on a patient before first having the correct diagnosis — we will not address the real problem, and we may do more harm than good. … Although ongoing outbreaks understandably have led to widespread public concern about increased fire risk, the best available science indicates that outbreaks of mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle do not lead to an increased risk of fire in the vast majority of forests that are currently being affected.”
Kulakowski, a former CU-Boulder faculty member who is now at Clark University in Massachusetts, told Boulder Weekly that his group’s research findings are admittedly counter-intuitive, because the mere appearance of the red-needled trees “instills a sense of panic about the risk of fire.” He acknowledges that while it might be easier to ignite a dead pine needle than a live one — as anyone who has lit a campfire can tell you — the issue is more about how forest fires move across the landscape, often spreading from canopy to canopy, consuming fuel on such a large, heat-intensive scale that it doesn’t matter much whether the fuel is dead or alive.
A big part of the desire to cut down the dead trees is aesthetics, he says. We see brown instead of green, and our first instinct is to clean it up.
After the widespread fires in Yellowstone in 1988, the common storyline was that “Yellowstone National Park has been destroyed,” Kulakowski says. So in the years since, he explains, scientists have been trying to educate the public about the fact that forest fires are a necessary and critical part of nature.
The key, he and his colleagues agree, is defending the immediate 120-foot perimeter around manmade structures.
“That makes sense,” says one of the report’s coauthors, wildlife ecologist Barry Noon of Colorado State University. “I’m going to do it around my cabin.”
They say the bigger problem, and the driver of both the beetle outbreak and any forest fire danger, is the recent droughts in the West, which may be a symptom of larger concerns about global warming.
“The bark beetle outbreak is the face of climate change,” Kulakowski says. “The fires across the West are the face of climate change.”
One of his co-authors, Dominick DellaSala, executive director at the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, agrees.
“If you’re really concerned about forests, you need to do something about climate change,” he told Boulder Weekly. “You’re addressing the symptom, not the problem.”
Beetles to Boulder?
Joe Duda, forest management supervisor for the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), is one of the experts who points to the mountain pine beetle’s recent invasion of Larimer County — which accounted for about half of the state’s increase in beetle activity this past year — as evidence that the northern Front Range is one of the bugs’ next targets. “We expect we’ll see more,” he says, noting that there are still dense stands of pines from Boulder County to the Wyoming border.
Theo Stein, communication director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, adds, “The northern Front Range is going to change before our eyes, and it’s going to be visually significant.”
But Duda calls the scientists’ recent report “a great oversimplification of all the issues we as land managers have to deal with.” Duda and Stein say the fire mitigation issue is more complicated than most people know, since fire danger changes with each phase of the beetle-kill pine’s deterioration. For example, the threat of a forest fire is higher when the brown trees still have their needles, and it goes down after those needles fall, but then the danger goes back up after a decade or two, when ground fuel is heavy with all of the dead trees that have fallen and the new ones coming up.
In addition to the fire issue, Duda says, there are myriad social and economic factors at play. Duda points to the havoc that falling trees can play on manmade infrastructure like roads and power lines. Falling trees also affect recreational uses in the forest, from campgrounds to hiking trails to ski areas. Logging the dead trees for various products can give the state and local economies a boost and generate jobs, he says, all the while benefiting the landscape.
“It’s a win-win — just letting it burn is narrow,” Duda says. “If you were not going to use the forest for anything, you could go ahead and let it burn. … To say we want to step back and not do anything doesn’t meet some of society’s needs on the landscape.”
Kulakowski doesn’t disagree, he just wants officials to be upfront about their reasons for logging and not use fire danger as justification. We need to decide as a society what to do with the backcountry forests, he says, and if the answer is producing timber, “we shouldn’t confuse it with fire hazard mitigation. … If we want to log, then log, but be honest; it’s not for fire mitigation.”
The issue also relates to the state’s roadless areas, Kulakowski says.
“If the goal is to protect homes and communities, it doesn’t make sense to go into roadless areas and collect timber,” he explains.
Indeed, the debate over beetle-kill pine and fire danger has spilled over into an even more intense face-off over an effort to create a new roadless rule for the state.
With a 2001 federal roadless rule still in limbo because of a protracted court battle, Gov. Bill Ritter has rolled out a proposal for Colorado to have its own roadless rule, one that he says recognizes Colorado’s need to protect the interests of ski areas and industries like coal, oil and gas.
President Barack Obama has endorsed the Colorado proposal. Idaho is the only other state that has developed a state-specific roadless plan.
One of Ritter’s primary justifications for the new roadless rule is the heightened fire risk in pine forests that have been devastated by the mountain pine beetle.
In an April 6 letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack justifying the need for a Colorado roadless rule, Ritter cites the fact that bark beetles — both spruce and pine — have killed 2.9 million acres of mature trees in the state, and they threaten at least 3 million more.
He writes that the 2001 federal roadless rule did not anticipate this outbreak, and it limits the state’s ability to address wildfire hazards. The 2001 rule, Ritter says, prohibits taking action against wildfire hazards in roadless areas until the threat is “imminent,” and that approach “is unacceptable to me as the chief elected official of this state.”
Ritter’s proposed rule would give more power to local authorities to address the risk of forest fires. It would allow fire-prevention strategies like logging and thinning in roadless areas within a half-mile boundary around communities, and would allow such activity to occur as far as a mile and a half into a roadless area only when certain conditions are met, which he calls “a high bar.” Beyond that 1.5-mile boundary, Ritter says in the letter, “fuel treatments are prohibited except when the regional forester determines there is a substantial threat to municipal water supply infrastructure.”
A recent news release announcing a revised Colorado roadless rule being submitted to the feds trumpets that it updates the state’s inventory of protected areas by adding 410,000 acres that were not included in the 2001 federal rule.
But some environmental activists are challenging the assertion that the Ritter rule protects more, not less, of Colorado’s roadless areas.
One of the findings in the scientists’ recent report on fire and beetle-kill pine challenges Ritter’s plan, saying that the 2001 federal rule “allows sufficient flexibility locally to address public health and safety, fire and undesirable insects, while maintaining the qualities and character of national forest roadless areas. Under the state’s proposal, Colorado’s national forest roadless areas would be subjected to numerous exceptions to the protections that are provided under the national rule, thereby degrading roadless qualities and providing fewer protections to these areas than any state in the nation.”
Report co-author DellaSala argues that Ritter’s proposal would open up more of Colorado’s roadless acreage to road construction. He says that roadless areas are like a biological oasis, and adding roads in them has severe impacts on hydrology and erosion, among other things. “Once you put a road in, you change their character, because you build roads for a reason, whether it’s for logging, recreation, whatever,” he says. “Once you build roads, they are really hard to take out.”
DellaSala says Ritter’s plan uses beetle-kill pine as an excuse to allow more flexibility to thin forest, and the result is “a grab-bag for special interests.”
The proposal eases land limits for gas and oil extraction, coal mining and ski areas, he argues.
“None of that was in the original rule,” DellaSala says. “So to call it more protective kind of flies in the face of what people think protective means. … How can they say this is more protective when there are allowances in here for coal mining?” While some environmental groups support Ritter’s plan, others, including the Wilderness Society and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, oppose it. Scores of scientists, including several at CU-Boulder have signed a letter to Obama opposing the Ritter plan.
Colorado environmental activist and organizer Pete Kolbenschlag points to a legal analysis performed for the Pew Environment Group by Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, which makes the case that Ritter’s rule is not as protective of roadless areas as the 2001 federal version.
He also questions why the Ritter rule allows for a perimeter of up to 1.5 miles into roadless areas when scientists argue that you only need a 120-foot buffer to defend homes against forest fire.
“A mile and a half into the backcountry isn’t appropriate,” he says. “The idea that it protects more than the 2001 rule is pure spin.”
Do the math
Detractors say that the 410,000 additional protected acres in the Ritter plan are more than offset by the removal of 457,000 acres from the 2001 inventory. They also point to additional acreage opened by new
allowances for ski-area expansion, coal mining, oil and gas extraction and water transference infrastructure.
The Ritter rule results in a net decrease in the number of acres protected as roadless, they say.
But Stein, the spokesperson for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, uses a different equation.
“I think they’re disingenuous,” he says of the detractors.
Stein claims that the 457,000 acres removed from the roadless inventory under the Ritter plan actually contain roads and should not have been included in the 2001 rule. Since they were inaccurately inventoried to begin with, he doesn’t consider those acres in his calculations, and comes up with a net increase in the number of protected acres.
He says the half-mile buffer was added based on input last fall from firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service, which challenged the notion that 120 feet is enough space to maneuver around the edges of a forest fire and manipulate it. The half-mile buffer provides that necessary space, Stein says.
Under the 2001 rule, tree-thinning could begin only when there was an imminent threat, which he says is unacceptable because it amounts to “when the fire is on the other side of the ridge. … Fire up the saws when the fire comes over the hill.”
To gain special approval to clear timber in areas up to 1.5 miles into a roadless area, he explains, under the Ritter rule local authorities would need to meet three federal requirements related to the physical conditions of the land, plus a state regulation requiring communities to have an approved wildfire protection plan.
Stein estimates that the buffers would account for between 200,000 and 300,000 acres of opened roadless areas. When one adds in a 30,000-acre allowance for boring methane ventilation holes for coal mines and expanding ski areas within their existing permit boundaries, he says, that is more than eclipsed by the 410,000 acres added to the roadless areas under the Ritter plan, resulting in a net increase in protected lands.
Stein doesn’t count the oil and gas “gap” leases that have been filed during the legal limbo that has existed since the federal roadless rule was challenged in 2001, because the state would certainly face lawsuits if it removed those leases from the roadless inventory.
“We can’t retroactively extinguish them without facing a takings claim,” he says, but he adds that those leases could be challenged if the Obama administration is successful in its legal effort to uphold the 2001 rule.
As for logging and thinning beetle-kill forests deep within the backcountry, the two sides seem to see eye to eye.
“We agree that widespread salvage logging is inappropriate, and that’s why the state roadless rule doesn’t allow it,” Stein concludes.
Meanwhile, little bugs the size of a grain of rice continue their march toward the Front Range. When it comes to tree bark, their specialty is boring, but they leave behind destruction and debate that is anything but.