Thanks for hosting this meeting to discuss such an important subject, and thanks for including me. I’ll start by outlining the Forest Service perspective on this issue across the West.
Bark beetles are a native pest. They have evolved with America’s forests for thousands of years, and beetle epidemics are not unusual. They strike when conditions are right. As you know, the last big outbreak of mountain pine beetle was in the 1970s; it came at a time when the national forests were producing about 10 billion board feet of timber on average each year. In 1950, after a big winter blowdown in the Northern Rockies, there was a huge outbreak of spruce beetle. Like fire, beetles play a natural role in the ecosystem, and the forests eventually recover.
But beetles are also a major cause for concern and a big priority for the Forest Service. Since 2001, western bark beetles of all kinds have affected huge and growing areas at all elevations and latitudes, from low-elevation pinyon pine to high-elevation whitebark pine, from Arizona to Alaska. Fir engraver, spruce beetle, pinyon ips, Douglas-fir beetle, western pine beetle, you name it … the list goes on.
By far the worst infestations have been by mountain pine beetle. MPB has infested huge parts of the Rockies, particularly in lodgepole pine. Enormous areas of lodgepole pine, all about the same age, now cover many parts of the West. This is partly due to fire exclusion and even-age timber management over most of the 20th century. Dense homogenous stands are particularly susceptible to beetle attack, and climate change has made things worse. Because winters are warmer, they are no longer knocking the beetles back. The stars have aligned for what one author has called “the perfect plague.”
Accordingly, we are in the midst of a great epidemic—the greatest on record. In the 1990s, mountain pine beetle affected on average less than half a million acres per year. Since 2001, the area affected has multiplied in size to about 3.3 million acres on average each year. The epidemic is affecting both unmanaged forests and intensively managed stands. Mountain pine beetle alone now accounts for the lion’s share of forest mortality nationwide. Last year, it was almost 75 percent of total forest mortality across the nation. MPB is also invading higher elevations to attack whitebark and other five-needle pines, which are not adapted to it and are already under stress from blister rust and competition with subalpine fir.
I have named Jim Peña, our Associate Deputy Chief for National Forest System, as our national bark beetle lead executive. Jim is responsible for coordinating all of our bark-beetle-related activities across the nation. Safety is our top concern. We need to keep dead trees from endangering people in campgrounds, on roads and trails, and at administrative sites. We are in the process of prioritizing and treating our roads, trails, and facilities for hazard trees.
Fire hazard is another major concern. Dead forests with red needles on the tree can fuel enormous fires; fire hazard goes down when the needles come off, but then it goes up again 10 to 20 years later when the trees start falling and adding to fuel loadings. We are in the process of prioritizing areas for fuels treatments, especially in or near the WUI.
Water is another issue. Beetle kill can affect hydrology, and water quality can suffer if a beetle-killed forest later burns. We need to protect key watersheds by restoring beetle-affected forests to a healthy, resilient condition through replanting, burning, and other management activities. In some areas, we might want to replace homogenous forest stands with more of a patchwork with openings and uneven ages, more of a mixed-severity fire regime.
As you will hear more about later, Rick Cables and his team have organized around this issue, redirecting resources to help meet the challenge. USDA is closely following this issue, and Secretary Vilsack has directed an additional $40 million in funds for emergency work on the National Forest System. These additional funds were obligated this year.
But the problem is enormous, and it’s on a landscape scale. No single entity can handle it alone. We are doing what we can with our appropriated funds; but, depending on appropriations, we might not be able to accomplish everything that needs to be done. Partnerships will be critical; we need to innovate, combining resources to meet the challenge. We are all going to have to work together across jurisdictions. This epidemic showcases the need for an all-lands approach.
Your efforts have helped address this issue, and together we have done a lot already. We deeply appreciate all your partnership work on this, for example through the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative. Jim Peña is working closely with the states in the region to help coordinate our efforts across the West. The Western Forestry Leadership Council can also help coordinate our collaborative efforts through the West Wide Forest Planning strategic initiative, drawing on the statewide assessments and strategies. So I think we have a good foundation for a West-wide approach to dealing with this issue on a landscape scale.
I look forward to learning more about this issue through the dialogue here today. I am also joining regional staff for a field trip in Summit County this afternoon, and I am participating in a Forest Service review of the Region during the rest of this week, where I’m sure I will learn a lot more.
Gary Lantz, “Weathering the Perfect Plague: How the West Is Coping With the Most Severe Disaster to Hit Our Forests This Century” (American Forests [Autumn 2009]: 32-37).
M.R. Kaufmann, G.H. Aplet, M.G. Babler [et al.], The Status of Our Scientific Understanding of Lodgepole Pine and Mountain Pine Beetles—A Focus on Forest Ecology and Fire Behavior (GFI Tech. Rep. 2008-2; Arlington, VA: The Nature Conservancy, 2008).