Bark beetles and "Healthy Forests" (long)

Donald L Ferrt wolfbat359 at mindspring.com
Wed Mar 10 04:51:34 EST 2004


lhfotoware at hotmail.com (Larry Harrell) wrote in message news:<7a90c754.0403090641.3113568 at posting.google.com>...
> March 7, 2004  Montrose Daily Press
> 
> 'Healthy forest' fears ignite as die-back kills millions of trees
> 
> by Russell Smyth
> 
> MONTROSE - A massive die-back killing tens of millions of trees in
> Western states has ignited debate over public-land management and the
> term "healthy forests."
> 
> Drought and insects have swept through woodlands across thousands of
> square miles, leaving forests of dead-standing timber that many
> officials fear could explode into catastrophic wildfires.
> 
> After wildland blazes ravaged more than 1 million acres, destroyed at
> least 3,600 homes and killed 22 people in California last fire season,
> the forest health message seemed simple: Dead brush and trees increase
> the risk of a catastrophic wildfires, so cut dead woody material from
> the landscape.
> 
> The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of the Interior
> released a 56-page guide Wednesday that shows public-land managers how
> they can expedite tree thinning and other projects designed to lessen
> wildfire risks. Called "The Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy
> Forests Restoration Act Interim Field Guide," the document will help
> implement plans the Bush administration and U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis,
> R-Grand Junction, developed. The guide claims environmental reviews
> created to protect landscapes actually hamper federal agencies'
> ability to implement wildfire-reduction plans because the reviews are
> too slow.
> 
> A group of 13 forest-health experts, however, claims solutions to the
> die-back that has hit Western forests are not as clear as simply
> removing trees from public lands. Members of the group recently
> co-signed a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann
> Veneman and U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton that
> challenges some popular beliefs regarding forest health and wildfires.
> 
> "There's never been a real rigorous test of the effects of dead trees
> on subsequent fire behavior," said Bill Romme, a Colorado State
> University professor of fire ecology who co-signed the letter.
> "There's just the assumption that because there's all that dead wood
> the fires will be more severe. That may be true in some situations,
> and we (who signed the letter) acknowledge that, but we doubt it's
> true in all situations."
> 
> The group of forest-health experts is not an official organization or
> government entity. Members comprise scientists based in Colorado,
> Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and California. Romme and another of the
> letter's co-signers, Peter Brown, a dendrochronologist with Rocky
> Mountain Tree Ring Research Inc. in Fort Collins, have studied
> woodland conditions on the 2,290-square-mile Uncompahgre Plateau west
> of Montrose.
> 
> Although addressed to secretaries of the agriculture and interior
> departments, which oversee the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of
> Land Management and National Park Service, the group of scientists'
> letter has circulated among many forest-health officials throughout
> the West.
> 
> "Primarily it was to inform them, but I guess we were hoping to get a
> response - or at least an acknowledgement," Romme said. "We haven't."
> 
> They will, however. The Forest Service is preparing a response, said
> Frank Cross, forest health group leader for the Forest Service's Rocky
> Mountain Region, which oversees national forests and grasslands in
> five states, including Colorado.
> 
> Scientists and Forest Service officials aren't the only people
> responding to the extensive die-back in Western forests. State and
> federal land managers, timber industry officials, environmentalists,
> wildland firefighters, county commissioners and U.S. congressional
> delegates have debated how they should respond to dying woodlands.
> 
> The 'perfect storm'
> 
> Forest-health experts agree on one thing: A combination of climate and
> insects created the die-back in Western forests.
> 
> The letter Romme co-authored describes a "perfect storm" of mortality
> that has covered thousands of square miles of pinyon pine, ponderosa
> pine and other forest types in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
> 
> Focusing more on pinyon pines and on the Southwest, the paper points
> to unusually wet conditions prior to the recent drought. For instance,
> tree-ring reconstructions of climate in New Mexico indicate the
> 20-year period from 1976 to 1995 was the third wettest in the past 750
> to 1,000 years. During this wet period, forests grew denser.
> 
> Severe drought following the wet period desiccated forests, which had
> grown relatively dense and needed more water than they normally would
> require. Drought killed some trees and weakened others.
> 
> A third climatic condition, unusually warm temperatures during the
> past decade, helped tree-boring insects thrive. Aided by warm shoulder
> seasons, beetles whose larvae feed on pinyon pine bark, mature then
> fly to other trees have increased their life cycles from two
> generations per season to as many as four.
> 
> Another meteorological phenomenon, global warming, should be
> considered when forest-health officials consider the life cycles of
> tree boring insects and their impacts on Western forests, said Brown
> of Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research.
> 
> "The issue right now is if global warming is occurring," Brown said.
> "If that is affecting temperatures, how is that affecting insects?"
> 
> Cross of the Forest Service said he agrees with the "perfect storm"
> concept.
> 
> Tim Garvey, a silviculturist with the Forest Service's Norwood and
> Ouray ranger districts, compared the die-back to a tornado of a
> magnitude that people would only see once every 400 years. He also
> said the die-back could be compared to a 500-year flood.
> 
> "This isn't a maintenance type of disturbance," Garvey said about the
> Forest Service's ability to respond to the die-back. "It's resetting
> the clock, which doesn't happen very frequently."
> 
> Although they may be rare, large-scale die-backs such as the one
> sweeping through Western forests are not unprecedented, Brown said.
> 
> The scientific community is still trying to learn the historic cycle
> of large-scale woodland die-backs, Romme said.
> 
> "I think we can say pinyon mortality of this magnitude has not been
> seen in the past 100 years," he said, referring to one species the
> die-back has hit hard, "but we don't know whether this kind of
> mortality is precedented at longer time scales, perhaps of many
> centuries."
> 
> Released in January, the state of Colorado's "2003 Report on the
> Health of Colorado's Forests" estimates one subspecies of bark beetle,
> Ips confusus, has killed 1 million trees in the Centennial State.
> 
> Aerial surveys the Forest Service conducted in 2003 estimate 4.2
> million pinyon pine trees have died across 937,000 acres of public and
> private lands in Colorado, which has more than 4 million acres of
> pinyon pine stands. The pinyon die-back has hit areas around Durango,
> Cortez and Dolores the hardest.
> 
> In addition to aerial surveys, Forest Service officials used study
> plots to conduct on-the-ground estimates of pinyon pine mortality,
> said Roy Mask, a Gunnison-based entomologist with the Forest Service's
> Rocky Mountain Region. Sixty plots located on federal lands in
> Colorado showed a 27 percent overall mortality in pinyon stands.
> Mortality rates ranged from 0.0 percent to 100 percent.
> 
> Mask emphasized the study plot results are preliminary. Overall pinyon
> pine mortality rates for plot samples in other states follow: New
> Mexico, 15 percent; Arizona, 27 percent; California, 15 percent; and
> Utah, 3 percent.
> 
> The pinyon pine die-back has swept into some areas near Montrose,
> Garvey said. He described dead and dying trees on the Uncompahgre
> Plateau.
> 
> "It's apparent there is increased mortality," he said. "You know if
> you drive up - and it seems to be in the lower elevations - up the
> Delta-Nucla road (Mesa Road), Transfer Road, even Dave Wood Road - you
> drive up any of those roads out of town and it's very obvious."
> 
> Although the group of scientists' letter focuses on pinyon pines,
> Romme said he would not want to assert that one species is suffering a
> greater die-back than other trees in Western states.
> 
> "Depending on where you are, different tree species are getting hit
> the hardest," he said. "In central Arizona, the ponderosa pine is
> getting hit very hard. In southern Utah, the Engelmann spruce is
> getting really hit. Throughout the West, almost all the major tree
> species are getting hit hard somewhere."
> 
> Bark beetles are boring into pinyon pines, ponderosa pines and other
> species, Cross said.
> 
> "The beetle activity is up all over the place in all species of trees
> and in almost all bark beetles. I think it's a result of drought
> primarily and forest conditions secondarily," he said, referring to
> stands of overly dense, older trees.
> 
> Forest Service officials are concerned about Engelmann spruce, Cross
> said.
> 
> "I think right now we're at the beginning stages of, if it continues
> growing, a huge spruce beetle (infestation). &#352; It doesn't happen
> very often, maybe every 150 to 200 years, so we don't know very much
> about the spruce beetle."
> 
> An infestation that started in the late 1930s and ran through the
> early 1950s killed an estimated 250,000 acres of spruce trees in the
> Flat Tops area north of Glenwood Springs, Cross said. Eventually, a
> combination of extreme cold and predators such as woodpeckers checked
> the infestation.
> 
> Closer to Montrose, beetles have hit Engelmann spruce on the
> Uncompahgre Plateau, and on portions of the Grand Mesa and the
> Cimarron River Basin, Mask said.
> 
> Ponderosa pine trees have not escaped the die-back, either, Cross
> said.
> 
> "It's not doing well, either," he said about the species. "There's a
> huge epidemic that's kind of winding down now in the Arkansas Valley.
> &#352; It's killed thousands of acres of trees in that area. It's
> pretty much killed all the trees it's going to right now I think."
> 
> Combinations of drought, bark beetles and disease have affected
> subalpine fir in forests near Montrose, Garvey said. However, he said
> the extent is not "striking."
> 
> "We're being watchful," he said. "We're monitoring."
> 
> Prescriptions for a 'healthy forest'
> 
> Although forest-health experts agree that climate and insects have
> created the massive die-back in Western forests, deciding how to
> manage tens of millions of dead trees has sparked some debate.
> 
> The group of scientists' letter, for instance, contends the risk of
> catastrophic wildfires will eventually decrease in stands of dead
> pinyon pine trees.
> 
> "Conventional wisdom is that when you have a lot of dead trees you
> increase the fire hazard, but that conventional wisdom may not always
> be correct," Romme said. "Our group wants to challenge fire managers
> to really evaluate whether that assumption is correct, and in the
> pinyon/juniper system we think it probably is not."
> 
> Wildfire risks will increase in pinyon pine trees for about one year
> while the trees retain their dead, highly flammable leaves, according
> to the letter Romme co-authored. In pinyon pine stands, crown fires,
> which burn through the crowns, or tops, of trees, primarily consume
> needles and small twigs, not the larger branches, the letter contends.
> Additionally, moisture-stressed live needles may burn more intensely
> because they have flammable terpene compounds. Consequently, after the
> needles fall from dead trees, the risk of a crown fire blazing through
> pinyon pine stands will decrease.
> 
> Instead of following the conventional wisdom of removing dead trees to
> reduce wildfire hazards, the letter asks federal land managers to
> reconsider plans to use either small, prescribed fires or mechanical
> treatments to clear pinyon/juniper stands. The treatments could have
> negative effects, including soil erosion and the spread of cheatgrass,
> a nonnative species that crowds out native plants and elevates the
> risk of frequent ground fires.
> 
> "One of the issues that I think is going to come up very soon is what
> we're going to do with the dead trees out there. &#352; Managers are
> going to feel the need to do something. Our basic contention is,
> 'Well, let's wait and see,'" said Brown of Rocky Mountain Tree Ring
> Research.
> 
> The scientists' argument has garnered mixed responses from
> forest-health experts.
> 
> "I think they're pretty accurate with their assessment of the fire
> behavior," said Dan Huisjen, a Bureau of Land Management fire
> ecologist based in Montrose. "The component that's going to carry a
> fire through a pinyon/juniper stand is the needles. The drier the
> needles are, the more intense and faster a fire will be. So when the
> beetle hits them and the needles turn red, there is some very
> significant fire danger while the needles are on the tree. But once
> those needles fall on the ground, within six months to a year most of
> the carrier for the fire is no longer present for that intense crown
> fire."
> 
> Fire danger may decrease for some time after dead pinyon pine trees
> drop their needles, but the scientists may have overstated the
> long-term reduction in fire danger, said Cross of the Forest Service.
> 
> "In the long term I think it's a huge question mark," he said.
> "There's going to be all these dead trees falling to the ground, and
> there's going to be something to replace them. And whatever replaces
> them, it seems to me, is going to replace the fire behavior. &#352;
> That paper I think was stretching out there when they said there's
> going to be a big impact on fire."
> 
> Land managers need to treat some woodlands the die-back has affected,
> Cross said.
> 
> "There's small areas like in urban interface areas and recreation
> areas and areas of high interest where we feel we do have a positive
> motivation to do something about the epidemic," he said. "In many
> cases it's just going to be restoration, trying to get rid of the dead
> material."
> 
> Wildfire officials should decide what management practices will work
> most effectively for a particular woodland instead of adopting a
> broad-brushed approach to the die-back, Huisjen said.
> 
> "The paper points out the need to be cautious in going into some of
> these impacted areas, and I agree with that," he said. "But we need to
> look at it on a case-by-case basis. In some areas we may want to go
> in, have the public go in and salvage the fuels for firewood. In some
> other places we may want to do some additional fuels treatments, but
> we need to take a cautious approach with those post-insect-epidemic
> activities."
> 
> Land managers' responses to the scientists' letter have been
> "generally favorable," Romme said.
> 
> "There's been concern we were trying to curtail managers' options with
> the dead trees, and we clarified that's not what we had in mind at
> all," he said. "We wanted to suggest additional options they could
> chose from, but the local managers and the public are the ones who
> should make the final decisions."
> 
> It's too early for the Forest Service to determine how it will respond
> if the die-back in area woodlands surrounding Montrose becomes too
> severe, Garvey said. Forest Service officials have not worked with
> this type of large-scale die-back, so it is a new experience for them.
> One consideration is whether logging companies can salvage dead trees.
> Another is how flammable the dead trees might become.
> 
> The die-back is too massive to contain, said John Moore, a planner
> with the National Fire Plan assigned to the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre
> and Gunnison national forests.
> 
> "When you're in an epidemic situation, trying to do something on a
> landscape scale is not practical or feasible," said Moore, who is
> based at the GMUG headquarters in Delta. "The horse is already out of
> the barn."
> 
> However, Forest Service officials can study ways to manage woodlands
> so they will be more resilient to future large-scale die-backs, Moore
> said. For instance, the agency has managed stands of ponderosa pine so
> the trees will be about the same age. Although this technique improves
> tree harvesting, it makes the ponderosas more susceptible to insects.
> Uneven-age stands distributed in clumps across the landscape are more
> natural and more resilient.
> 
> The Forest Service may want to treat some dying pinyon pine woodlands
> in wildland urban interface (WUI) areas to reduce the risk of
> wildfires burning structures, but generally, the agency will let the
> beetle epidemic run its course, Moore said.
> 
> "It's very hard to chase bugs," he said.
> 
> Generally, the die-back also will run its course in other species such
> as ponderosa pine, fir and spruce, Moore said. The Forest Service will
> study management options in WUIs. Outside the WUIs, the agency will
> consider protecting some "high value" areas such as campgrounds.
> 
> As forest-health officials continue to address the massive die-back in
> Western forests, they will grapple differences between Mother Nature
> and humans, Cross said.
> 
> "I think that what we are seeing are natural events for the most
> part," he said. "Where they become problems is where we have
> objectives that interfere with these events. What I mean by that is we
> have a lot of uses of our forests that conflict with a lot of the
> large-scale disturbances we're seeing, including &#352; housing,
> recreation, developments, ski areas, threatened and endangered species
> habitat, and areas where we want to grow trees for timber production -
> and the list goes on. It's in those areas where we find conflict. But
> ecology - this is the way nature does things."
> 
> Comment from poster: It was inevitable that all these elements came
> into play at the same time in our forests. Did it take a disaster of
> this magnitude to convince Americans that their National Forests were
> indeed in danger?  YES! Anything less would've had preservationist
> groups pushing the idea that this is all natural. Even without
> references, anyone can see that, in many places, there are too many
> trees for the amount of available water. How many times do we have to
> deal with forests crises before we start to treat the disease instead
> of the symptoms?
> 
> Larry,    posting the truth about our forests

http://www.fseee.org/index.html?page=http%3A//www.fseee.org/forestmag/0401beetlemania.shtml

Beetlemania
By Allen Best


Colorado's current epidemic of spruce beetles began with an unusual
storm in October 1997. Corkscrewing through the state, the storm
dumped snow on the high plains and killed 50,000 cattle. Then, like an
afterthought, the winds swooped across the Continental Divide near the
Wyoming border uncharacteristically from the east. Screaming in bursts
of jet engine intensity, the winds knocked down trees on chunks of
13,000 acres of federal land. A band of elk hunters at the blowdown's
center, north of Steamboat Springs, sleeplessly hugged the log walls
of a cabin that night as hundred-foot Englemann spruce crashed around
them. Emerging the next morning, they spent three days chain-sawing
out of the maze of splintered timber that in places stood fifteen to
twenty feet high. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.

What came next was also unusual. The U.S. Forest Service refused to
fling itself into an attack on natural processes. An epidemic of
spruce bark beetles should be expected, said foresters, but no major
efforts would be made to control the epidemic. Several salvage sales
of about 4,000 acres were authorized, but in areas that might have
been logged anyway. Pointedly, the agency rebuffed calls to invade
designated wilderness and roadless areas, where most of the downed
trees lay. Only in selected areas, adjacent to ski slopes, homes and
campgrounds, could anything practical be done to stop the beetles,
said foresters. There was no mention of marauding hordes, no call to
battle, no proclamation of war.

>From bugs to big burns, federal land managers have been nudged by
research ecologists during the last two decades into rethinking the
role of infrequent large-scale disturbances. The impulse to take
action is much more subdued.

"We didn't say that we were going to try to stop the epidemic. We
didn't think we could because of the fact that so much of the blowdown
was inaccessible," says Frank Cross, the Forest Service team leader on
the Routt blowdown.

This deference to nature's way did not come naturally to foresters.
"When we first looked at [the blowdown], everyone was calling it a
catastrophe and other value-laden terms. Because it's a natural event,
we wound up coining some words for our use, and we were constantly
correcting each other. I think our thinking has changed quite a lot in
recent years."

Tom Veblen, an ecologist at the University of Colorado who specializes
in forest disturbances, agrees. "Certainly, there are a lot of people,
including professional foresters both within and outside of the Forest
Service, who would still give primary priority to the timber values
and would have done everything they could have to prevent a beetle
outbreak at the Routt blowdown," he says. "But I think that has been
shown to be a minority view. The management response was relatively
limited."

But the story is yet incomplete, both at the Routt blowdown and at
other large-scale disturbances on public land across the West. Just
how politicians and the public respond to swaths of forest turning
dull orange and then gray may yet be the critical part of the story.
Will they want action—any action—to right a perceived wrong? A
sampling of stories in Colorado's largest newspapers last summer
suggests the old impulse lingers in the public. "These pests and their
kin could soon become as big an enemy to Colorado's forests as
wildfires," warned the Denver Post. The blight, said the Rocky
Mountain News, "has destroyed more Colorado woodlands than last year's
Ha le largest challenge facing federal land and resources managers
today," said Representative Scott McInnis, a Republican from Colorado
who has been a prime mover of President Bush's Healthy Forests
Initiative.

The public, the papers and the politicians might be advised to recall
another blowdown, another spruce beetle outbreak and another attempt
to wage war before sending warriors to new forest battle lines. That
story began with hurricane-intensity winds blown by a mid-June storm
in 1939. Howling across the state's western slope, the storm knocked
over many trees, including those on several hundred acres between
Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs in an area called the White
River Plateau, more commonly known as the Flat Tops. Spruce beetles,
which were verging on an epidemic, were found in 1941 to have infested
large numbers of standing trees.

The Forest Service for several years did nothing. Labor and materials
were scarce during World War II, and entomologists admitted they had
no good idea how to control the beetles. By the war's end, the Forest
Service decided that the infested area on the White River Plateau was
too broad for effective control work.

By 1949, with the toll estimated at 3.5 billion board feet, the
beetles flew across fifteen to twenty miles of the largely treeless
valley of the Colorado River to establish themselves in spruce-fir
forests between the towns of Eagle and Aspen. This time, the Forest
Service decided to make "an all-out attempt to hold the beetle to its
then extensive area by fighting it along the outbreak's perimeter,"
Arthur L. Nelson, chief of timber management for the Forest Service,
recalled in an essay several years later. The agency's primary
strategy was to poison the beetles.

DDT sprayed from the air was ineffective because foliage screened so
much that little got to the tree trunks, where the beetles were.
Instead, in an experiment in 1949, the agency had field crews apply
insecticide to 3,000 trees. At $5 a tree, the costs were considered
high—almost unimaginably high when perhaps several million trees would
need to be treated. Still, by then, many were beginning to call this a
national emergency.

Newspaper and magazine stories, as well as a film produced for the
Forest Service, tell the story of the next several years with the
solemn language borrowed from war. World War II was fresh in
everyone's mind, and there was a new war in Korea. Change the names,
and the accounts sounded much the same: Chinese communist hordes and
spruce beetle invaders.

"Disaster—more destructive than the consuming torch of all the forest
fires of a generation rolled into one huge blaze—is whacking silent,
murderous swaths through Colorado's famous spruce," wrote the Denver
Post in 1946. It was an "invasion that combines the destructive power
of a fifth column with that of a full-scale panzer attack," added the
writer. Revisiting the subject in 1949, the newspaper described a
"trail of destruction unparalleled in history."

Scarcely less sensational was the Christian Science Monitor in 1951,
which ran a Forest Service employee report that declared the effort of
spruce beetle suppression to be the "most gigantic battle in the
history of the United States Forest Service." Already, advised the
author, a Forest Service information officer, "enough wood had been
lost to provide shelter for all the people who live in Boston." The
loss of 4 billion board feet, he added, could quintuple unless the
beetles were checked.

To sustain this war, the Forest Service had to get annual
congressional appropriations. This was, declared one young U.S.
representative from Colorado, Wayne Aspinall, a nonpartisan issue on
which Democrats and Republicans could unite. The enemy, in addition to
beetles, was a wrong-thinking congressman from Mississippi,
Representative Jamie L. Whitten, who openly questioned whether the
timber stands in Colorado were worth preserving. The Denver Post,
which by then had taken on the beetle cause as a pet project for its
self-described "Rocky Mountain Empire," was clear where its sympathies
lay. "Pests Riot as Congress Nods," said the paper in early 1950.
Countering Whitten, the Post found a lumberman in Colorado who
declared that there would be "ten or fifteen lumber camps here in ten
years for every one that's here now, if we can control the beetles."
Not missing a beat, the paper also reported that wildlife were
suffering. Already, porcupines were descending from the higher forests
to ranches, and even chipmunks were being displaced.

When money was finally authorized, two camps were set up, in Eagle and
in Kremmling. From there, crews were dispatched to the various
"battlefronts." From these bases, an insecticide,
orthodichlorobenzene, was distributed to outlying camps to be mixed
with six parts diesel fuel. Five-gallon cans, World War II surplus,
were carried by truck, jeep or pack animals to the crews. New roads
were blazed to the spruce-fir zone, mostly 9,000 to 11,000 feet in
elevation. Spotting trees infected by spruce beetles wasn't hard, says
one young forester of the time, Philip S. Miller, now retired in
Telluride, Colorado. All he had to do was look at the base of the
trees from where natural predators, woodpeckers, had chipped away at
the bark. With one man pumping, another drenched the tree at thirty to
thirty-five feet up the trunk, allowing the solution to trickle down.
At 1.28 gallons per tree, more than a million gallons of insecticide
were applied. The cost was $2 million. Miller doesn't remember talk of
war among workers but he remembers a lot of cussing.

Late that summer, the Forest Service assembled 1,500 laborers. In its
public pronouncements, the agency talked about putting college boys to
work, and they probably got jobs. But for the tiresome and, in
retrospect, dangerous work of spraying the trees, the agency recruited
from Denver's skid row, Larimer Street. Coming up short there, the
work force was filled out with men from the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
In all, they drenched nearly 800,000 trees that summer.

Still, the work in 1950 wasn't enough. Entomologists called for
spraying more trees the next year. So the war continued. The Denver
Post lobbied Congress directly for money, sending every member a vial
of bark beetles. At stake in this "tree by tree battle," said the
newspaper, was nothing less than saving the "forests in the Rocky
Mountain Empire from extinction." A timber industry spokesman
predicted that the industry "in these mountain states could double in
four or five years—or be put out of business—depending on whether we
stop the beetles now." A full one-third of Colorado's forests would be
"lost," warned experts. But it wasn't just about money; it was also
about beauty. The newspaper cited dead trees within three miles of
Rocky Mountain National Park, suggesting that the denuding of the
entire park was at hand. Even Yellowstone National Park, 300 miles
away, was threatened.

Congress delivered. A few weeks after crews set out, the Forest
Service announced victory over what the Post described as "the
greatest forest insect plague ever recorded." Spraying of the 1.25
million trees had been "effective beyond expectation," reported the
newspaper. Foresters also credited increased activity by woodpeckers
and parasites of spruce beetles.

But the real story was a cold snap eighteen months before. As
foresters had guessed, beetles could not survive temperatures of minus
thirty degrees. On February 1, 1951, it got much colder—forty-nine
degrees below zero in Kremmling, fifty-six degrees below zero in
Eagle. The "beetle bombers" from the Piney River country north of Vail
and other spraying crews abandoned their work with such haste that
hikers still stumble across cans of insecticide that were left behind.

Contrary to the dire warnings, not all the timber was destroyed. At
least 100 million board feet of timber was used to make pulp in
Wisconsin, and small logging contractors harvested standing dead trees
until the late 1990s for use in home construction. By the end of the
twentieth century, many people new to the region had no clue about the
great war against the spruce beetle. The battleground was just another
pretty forest.

Colorado's spruce beetle epidemic of the 1940s and 1950s and the
Forest Service response should be seen in terms of what historian Paul
Hirt calls technocratic optimism. Examining the Forest Service after
World War II in his book A Conspiracy of Optimism, Hirt writes that
"foresters came to believe that their overriding purpose was not so
much to protect the national forests but rather to develop their
resources to meet the material needs of the American people. They saw
their mission as one of overcoming limits, not establishing them. A
consciously disseminated ‘can-do' technocratic optimism imbued the
Forest Service with a sense of mission and excitement."

Underlying this mission, says Hirt, was "American enthusiasm for
unending economic growth and technological manipulation of natural
systems in pursuit of wealth and national power. The Forest Service
was equally an advocate and a victim of this ideology."

The Forest Service has changed, as witnessed on the Routt blowdown,
but Greg Applet, a senior forest scientist for the Wilderness Society,
sometimes wonders how much. "I still think there's an awful lot of bug
chasing that goes on out there," he says. "I think a lot of people
think that any tree death is bad, unless it's by our hand." Whatever
the problem, he adds, be it insects or fire, there always seems to be
one and only one solution: too many trees.

Part of the story, he suggests, is jobs. "In 1992, I testified before
Congress on the issue of forest health, and it was clear to me then
that there was this kind of, you wouldn't call it a conspiracy, but
all the forces were lined up to hype a forest health crisis. The
agencies would get more money, research would get more money, industry
would obviously get the benefit of salvage sales, but even the
environmental community was kind of able to say, see, it's fifty years
of mismanagement that has led to this situation."

Honesty, agrees Bill Heicher, a retired state wildlife biologist in
Colorado, is the base issue. Innumerable times during his thirty-year
career, says Heicher, timber sales on his district were
justified—falsely—as being beneficial to wildlife. "I'm not against
timber sales, but I am against them saying they will benefit wildlife
when they don't have a clue what will benefit wildlife. It used to be
wildlife. Now it's bugs. They'd all be better off if they would just
be honest."

The story of spruce beetles remains unfinished. The beetles are
spreading; trees dying far beyond the Routt and other blowdowns. The
Forest Service has so far shown restraint, even as the public and
politicians have begun talking the language of war. Cross, now the
regional forest health leader for the Forest Service, points out that
he is an adviser, not a decision maker, but he knows what advice he'll
give.

"I'll tell them to pick their battles," he says. "There I go, using
the words of war. But I will tell them to choose those areas where you
really want to take a stand against the bark beetle—they will be
places like ski areas, municipal watersheds, habitat for threatened
and endangered species, areas near homes. Thinning in advance of
epidemics protects forests from bugs, but too many areas are too
steep, too wet or otherwise inaccessible to make thinning a broad
option. So pick your battles wisely because you can't hope to suppress
the beetles altogether. The area is just too broad, and the forces of
nature are just too great."



More information about the Ag-forst mailing list