Bark beetle debate adds fuel to the wildfire

By Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
March 5, 2010

Across the Western USA, the complex relationship between forests, logging, wildfires, drought, climate change, and yes, even beetles, remains a controversial challenge for politicians, logging interests, and environmentalists.

Over the past decade, bark beetle outbreaks have added even more fuel to the controversy, as massive tree-eating armies of the insects have chewed through tens of millions of acres of pine forests throughout the West.

One Oregon environmental group weighed in this week with a new report, which suggests that tree thinning and logging won’t lessen future epidemics of bark beetles, and that the insect outbreaks in the West may not lead to greater wildfire risk.

According to the report, released by the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, a nonprofit organization in Ashland, Ore., insect outbreaks and wildfires are a natural part of the ecology of western forests.

“Drought and high temperature are likely the overriding factors behind the current bark beetle epidemic in the western United States,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and lead author of the report.

The report comes against a backdrop of a plan under consideration by the U.S. Forest Service, which would exempt the state of Colorado from the national Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Adopted in 2001, the rule conserved 58.5 million acres of national forests and grasslands from most logging and road construction.

“Because logging and thinning cannot effectively alleviate the overriding effects of climate, it will do little or nothing to control these outbreaks,” said Black.

The environmental group’s report also says that new tree cutting in designated roadless areas, which had previously been protected under the 2001 rule, is not likely keep communities safe from wildfire.

“Fires in lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests, such as those found in Colorado, are primarily determined by weather conditions,” said report co-author Dominik Kulakowski of Clark University. “The best available science indicates that outbreaks of bark beetles in these forests have little or no effect on fire risk, and may actually reduce it in certain cases.”

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