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Forest health: Is more federal money the answer?

A clear-cut bark beetle area along Swan Mountain Road, Summit County, Colorado.

Sen. Mark Udall asks Forest Service to “reprogram” funds toward bark beetle work in the northern Rockies

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Sen. Mark Udall is once again pounding the bark-beetle drum, asking top federal officials to recognize the catastrophic nature of the insect invasion and to provide adequate resources to help prevent a major disaster fed by a combination of dry conditions and dead and dying trees.

“Colorado is ground zero for the bark beetle epidemic, with which the Rocky Mountain Region has grappled for more than 10 years. The threat to public safety, critical infrastructure, recreational activities and water supplies intensifies with each passing year as the epidemic spreads,” Udall wrote in March 25 letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. 

“I am growing increasingly concerned about the possibility of wildfire igniting the millions of acres of dead trees across Colorado, causing an even greater disaster,” he added.

There may not be much extra money for the Forest Service this year. The agency’s 2012 budget, per President Obama’s budget request, could be cut by $239 million, with the savings to be achieved by program recombinations and major reductions in roads, facilities, as well as national fire plan programs.
At a March 3 budget hearing, Tidwell said the agency plans to up bark beetle spending to $100 million annually.

“Do you support reprogramming funds for bark beetles?” Udall asked Tidwell during the hearing.
Tidwell responded that there are $70 million in carry-over fire suppression funds that will go to bark beetle work.

Click here to watch an archived video of the budget hearing.

Last October, Udall and a bipartisan group of Western senators asked the administration to re-direct $49 million in un-spent money to help address bark-beetle killed forests in Colorado and elsewhere in the Mountain West. Although the department agreed to a similar request in Fiscal Year 2010, the administration hasn’t acted on the latest appeal  — despite the fact that there is un-spent money available, a serious need in Colorado, and the fact that fighting a fire could ultimately be much more expensive than preventing one.

In his letter, Udall asks Tidwell to do “a full accounting” of available Forest Service funds for fire suppression and to determine what can be used to fight the bark beetle in Colorado.

“While the Forest Service successfully reprogrammed $40 million in Fiscal Year 2010 to go toward beetle-killed forests, those funds were just a drop in the bucket compared to the problem,” Udall wrote. “We face many difficult decisions on how to best allocate scarce federal resources, but I believe that these limited funds can be spent more effectively and efficiently by tackling these challenges today.  Waiting will only allow the problem to worsen.”

Here’s the text of the letter:

March 25, 2011

Chief Tom Tidwell
United States Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C. 20250

Dear Chief Tidwell,

I write to you today about an urgent problem facing Colorado: wildfire.  Just this week, the Burning Tree Fire and Indian Gulch Fire threatened lives and property as they burned more than 3,000 acres in northern Colorado.  Dry conditions coupled with high winds have put other communities on alert as numerous smaller fires have broken out across the state.

I am especially concerned because it is only the beginning of the fire season.  Colorado rarely sees fires this early, yet three months into the year, we are already having a severe fire season.  This is exacerbated by the long drought that Colorado is facing – for example, this March has so far been one of the driest on record.

Furthermore, Colorado is ground zero for the bark beetle epidemic, with which the Rocky Mountain Region has grappled for more than 10 years.  The threat to public safety, critical infrastructure, recreational activities and water supplies intensifies with each passing year as the epidemic spreads.  I am growing increasingly concerned about the possibility of wildfire igniting the millions of acres of dead trees across Colorado, causing an even greater disaster.

I have continually urged Secretary Vilsack to reprogram unobligated funds to go to bark beetle mitigation efforts in Colorado and other impacted states, and I understand the Department has tried to do so.  However, I was dismayed to learn that such reprogramming was unsuccessful and to subsequently see hundreds of millions of such funds recently presented as rescindable in the continuing resolution.

This was particularly troubling given the urgency of this year’s fire season and the growing bark beetle-related demands the Rocky Mountain West faces.  While the Forest Service successfully reprogrammed $40 million in Fiscal Year 2010 to go toward beetle-killed forests, those funds were just a drop in the bucket compared to the problem.

We face many difficult decisions on how to best allocate scarce federal resources, but I believe that these limited funds can be spent more effectively and efficiently by tackling these challenges today.  Waiting will only allow the problem to worsen, which is why I am asking today for a full accounting of available Forest Service funds for both fire suppression and those that may be reprogrammed for bark beetle mitigation.  We can no longer let delay and intra-governmental disagreements prevent critical action to protect our citizens and infrastructure.

Thank you for your time and attention on this issue.  I look forward to working closely with you to ensure that the Forest Service and Colorado are prepared to address these challenges.

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