Battling beetles may not reduce fire risks — report

By Eryn Gable, Land Letter
March 4, 2010

Tree thinning and logging across millions of acres of Western lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forest is unlikely to reduce fire risk or alleviate future large-scale epidemics of bark beetles, according to a new report prepared by forest ecologists.

“Extensive areas of dead trees have understandably led to widespread concern about the increased risk for forest fires,” said Dominik Kulakowski, one of the report’s authors and a professor of geography and biology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “This is a logical concern, but the best available science indicates that the occurrence of large fires in lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests is mainly influenced by climatic conditions, particularly drought.”

The report, funded by the Ashland, Ore.-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, suggests that limited funds available to mitigate fire risk for vulnerable communities would be best spent on projects that create defensible space around homes, including using flame retardant building materials and removing brush and trees within several hundred feet of homes.

The report’s release comes as the West continues to face its worst bark beetle outbreak in centuries. In recent years, beetles have infested and killed millions of acres of lodgepole pines.

“Unfortunately, in many places … green trees have been replaced by what to some seems like a ghost forest due to an unprecedented outbreak of bark beetles,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and lead author of the report.

“Many people are rightfully concerned with this issue, but before we spend millions of dollars to try to solve this problem, these decisions need to be informed by the best science to ensure that our responses make sense and do not have unintended ecological consequences,” he said.

Limited federal funds

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month provided $40 million for emergency hazardous tree removal in beetle-stricken Rocky Mountain forests in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota, with Colorado getting three-quarters of the funds. The money will allow the Forest Service to remove trees weakened or killed by bark beetles on about 50,000 acres this year — twice the acreage the agency treated last year (Land Letter, Feb. 11).

But that money will only fund what the Forest Service considers to be the most urgent hazardous tree removal work. The agency’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office estimates an additional $55 million in project spending will be needed in fiscal year 2011. An ongoing emergency assessment by a Forest Service National Incident Management Team also may result in recommendations for additional projects.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is also seeking federal support for additional forest health efforts, including thinning work on an estimated 1.5 million acres of overgrown forests in his state.

Colorado officials are also moving to finalize a plan that would exempt the state from the national 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, finalized in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Colorado is one of two states that have pursued a state-based approach to protect roadless areas, an option created by the Bush administration in the wake of its rollback of the 2001 roadless rule.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2001 roadless rule last year, but the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is currently reviewing a separate challenge to the 2001 rule.

Environmental groups have opposed the Colorado rule because it would allow new road construction and timber-cutting to combat beetles and reduce fire risk from insect-infected trees (Land Letter, Aug. 13, 2009).

Although the scale of the recent beetle outbreak is unprecedented in modern times, experts note that insect outbreaks and fires are a natural part of Western forest ecosystems. As such, the report found no causal link between insect outbreaks and the incidence of wildfire.

Moreover, the authors found that tree cutting “is not likely to control ongoing bark beetle outbreaks,” nor will it be “likely to alleviate future large-scale epidemics.”

“Despite nearly 100 years of active forest management to control the mountain pine beetle, there is very little evidence to suggest that logging is effective, especially once a large-scale insect infestation has started,” Black said.Black noted that even logging dead trees could make things worse from an ecological standpoint, since their removal eliminates habitat for parasites and insect predators. Logging can also seriously damage soil and roots, leading to greater stress on remaining trees and increasing their susceptibility to outbreaks.

Forest Service officials could not be reached for comment by press time.

Roadless areas

Environmentalists used the report’s findings to bolster their arguments against logging in the backcountry, particularly in federally designated roadless areas.

“If the goal is to protect communities, fire mitigation efforts should be focused around those communities and homes, not in remote and ecologically valuable areas,” Black said. “And if the goal is to protect lives and properties from hazard trees, then we should ensure that there is strategic, and I really mean strategic, removal of hazard trees where there may be life and property harmed.”

Barry Noon, a professor of wildlife ecology at Colorado State University, noted that scientific research has consistently shown the adverse effects of roads on hydrologic processes and fish and wildlife populations.

“One of the key things to recognize is the effects of the roads extend far beyond their immediate footprint,” Noon said. For example, “in terms of hydrology, the roads are leading to faster runoff of water, often with great increases in sedimentation, particularly following storm events, and roads in watersheds often lead to increases in the intensity of floods.”

These changes degrade fish habitat because of the increased sedimentation that leads to decreases in water quality, Noon said. And roads fragment wildlife habitat and create areas that animals avoid, often as result of increased hunting, he said.

Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, noted that roadless areas are critical to maintaining water quality, especially in Colorado. “We know that when we punch roads into these roadless watersheds, we can degrade their water quality, so the highest and best use in our view is to maintain the roadless area values that are protected by the national roadless conservation rule,” he said.

Click here to read the report.