What now? Debate over beetle-kill pine burns as bugs move to Front Range




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

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

“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.”

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.

Roadless rule

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

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.

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

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.

The opposition

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.”

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.”

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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