DENVER – The U.S. Forest Service will funnel an additional $40 million to Rocky Mountain states where a tiny bug has killed more than 2 million acres of pine trees in what has been called one of the West’s biggest natural disasters.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees the Forest Service, said Tuesday the funds will help address the growing threats from the devastated stands of trees.
Forest officials say threats include the risk of catastrophic wildfire, injury and property damage from falling trees and damage to waterways from erosion.
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who joined Vilsack for the announcement, said communities in the beetle-plagued forests also face economic losses from drops in tourism.
Vilsack said the emphasis will be on the most severely affected states: Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. He said there will be flexibility in deciding how to spend the money, which is coming in part from leftover stimulus funds and reallocations within the Forest Service.
“We intend to use this to focus on hazardous fuel reduction, on road and trail maintenance and on providing assistance to state and local governments so they in turn can do the work they need to do so they can protect their interests,” Vilsack said.
The tiny beetles burrow under the bark of pine trees, and have killed more than 2.5 million acres of trees in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.
The number of acres in the 1.2 million-acre Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota is “330,000 acres and climbing,” Forest Service spokesman Frank Carroll said.
Bugs the size of a match head lay their eggs inside the tree, turning the green needles to the color of rust as they feed on the tree and restrict its ability to draw water.
Colorado and Wyoming campgrounds have been temporarily closed because of falling trees. Contractors have cut trees around communities and recreation areas.
The Forest Service says more work is needed to protect the hundreds of miles of power lines and thousands of miles of roads and trails in the forests.
A national management team is helping regional forest officials deal with the effects. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is sponsoring a bill allowing the Forest Service to identify high-priority areas and expedite analysis of proposed treatments.
Udall has called the beetle outbreak “one of the biggest natural disasters we face in the West.”
The $40 million infusion for the response means the Forest Service office based in Denver won’t have to shift money from other forests in the region affected by the bark beetle, agency spokesman Steve Segin said.
The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region had said about $50 million was needed to battle the bark beetle. Some national forests in Wyoming were bracing for cuts they feared could close campgrounds.
The region covers Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Wyoming applauds Vilsack for working on the issue, but is interested in where the money is coming from and where it will go, said Jonathan Green, spokesman for Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
“It would be a shame if the department robbed Peter to pay Paul,” Green said. “And we hope the states have some input into how the money is spent so there is minimal waste.”
The group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics has the same question, said Andy Stahl, the group’s executive director. He said the group, which includes current and former Forest Service employees, wonders what trails or facilities won’t be maintained because of taxpayer dollars being spent on “removing dead trees from remote areas in the Colorado Rockies.”
Stahl is among critics who say the beetle-killed trees aren’t the wildfire risk the Forest Service say they are. Research shows that climate — hot, dry weather — is the driver behind forest fires, said Tom Veblen, a University of Colorado geography professor who studies forest ecology.
Veblen has said the lodgepole pines, the trees attacked by the mountain pine beetle, are fire-prone anyway.
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.
Other Western states with beetle infestations are Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and eastern Washington.
Suzanne Jones, director of the regional Wilderness Society office, said it will be important to spend the money wisely.
“Having funding to get boots on the ground has always been the limiting factor,” said Jones, a member of the Colorado governor’s forest health council.
But Jones said the money needs to go to high-priority areas, including communities on the edges of affected forests.
“It doesn’t mean we now need to go and cut down every dead tree in the backcountry,” she said.
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