Aerial forest surveys track continued spread of spruce beetles across Colorado forests

State, federal scientists track forest health

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Aerial survey results show how spruce beetles are taking a toll across Colorado’s forests, with new areas of infestation in the Sange de Cristo, the West Elks and even the northern mountains.

Spruce beetle populations are surging in the southern Rocky Mountains. bberwyn photo.

Spruce beetles are still spreading in the southern Rocky Mountains. @bberwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

The latest results from aerial surveys of Colorado forests shows that spruce beetles are doing the most damage, with infestations detected on 409,000 acres across the state, expanding onto 182,000 acres of previously unaffected forests. Since 1996, spruce beetle outbreaks have caused varying degrees of tree mortality on more than 1.5 million acres in Colorado.

The mapping shows spruce beetles spreading outward from the San Juans to the West Elk Mountains, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and into the northern part of the state around Rocky Mountain National Park. See the full report here: http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/USFSR2ForestHealth.

State forest experts said it was the fourth year in a row that spruce beetle outbreaks caused widespread tree mortality. As populations of spruce beetles expand, they are starting to affect higher-elevation stands of Engelmann spruce. The report says blowdown events, combined with long-term drought stress, warmer temperatures and extensive amounts of older, dense spruce, have all contributed to the ongoing spruce beetle outbreak. Continue reading

Wildfires burned across 10 million acres in 2015

Feds spend more than $2.6 billion on fire suppression

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Wildfire activity surged in 2015. Graph courtesy NIFC.

By Bob Berwyn

For the first time in the era of modern record-keeping, wildfires burned across more than 10 million acres in 2015, mainly due to a series of large fires in Alaska.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, there were more than 50 fires that exceeded 50,000 acres, and 20 fires exceeded more than 100,000 acres. The fires destroyed more than 4,500 homes and other structures and killed 13 wildland firefighters.

The big wildfire season came after two-year lull, when the total wildfire footprint stayed below 5 million acres. For the last years, the average now stands at about 6.6 million acres.

The uptick in fires is no surprise to experts, who have been warning that global warming will result in bigger burns. Alaska, for example, reported its second-warmest year on record in 2015. Since 2000, fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildland fires has increased.

In 2013, scientists linked a spate of massive Siberian wildfires with a “stuck” weather pattern associated with global warming. Overall, scientists say, those links are becoming more clear. It’s also clear that forests will have a more difficult time rebounding from fires as temperatures warm. Continue reading

Forest Service steps up restoration efforts in 2015

Colorado aspens

Restoration work needed across 65 million acres of national forest lands.

With wildfire costs soaring, agency takes funds from other programs

Staff Report

U.S. Forest Service officials said they were able to step up the pace of restoration projects in 2015 despite facing tough budget challenges during a record wildfire season.

Despite the gains, at least 65 million National Forest System acres are still in need of restoration, agency leaders said, explaining that the rising cost of wildfire suppression has taken funding away from restoration, watershed and wildlife programs, limiting the Forest Service’s ability to do the work that would prevent fires in the first place. Continue reading

Forests: Study says spruce beetle not a big factor in recent southwest Colorado wildfires

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A major spruce beetle outbreak has been spreading across forests of southwest Colorado, but that hasn’t been a big factor in recent wildfires in the region, according to CU-Boulder research.

Climate, topography likely more significant, researchers say

Staff Report

Colorado researchers have added another chapter to the long-running debate over beetle-kill and wildfires, finding that spruce beetle infestations haven’t increased the severity of wildfires in southwestern Colorado.

Spruce bark beetles have affected roughly half a million acres of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir forests across the state in recent years, with infestations documented across an additional 87,000 acres in 2014. Continue reading

Scientists slam Congress for once again considering misguided forest management bills

The magenta-flowered fireweed, which springs up after a burn, dominates a landscape once covered in black spruce in Alaskas Yukon Flats. Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The magenta-flowered fireweed, which springs up after a burn, dominates a landscape once covered in black spruce in Alaskas Yukon Flats. Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

‘Fire is not destroying our forests, rather, it is restoring these ecosystems …’

Staff Report

A group of scientists has weighed in on the political tug-of-war over forest policies by writing a letter to the U.S. Senate and President Obama, warning that two bills currently on the table would be destructive to forest ecosystems and wildlife

At issue are House Resolution 2647 and Senate Bill 1691, both proposed in response to ongoing concerns about forest fires. But the measures won’t improve forest health or reduce fire risks, the scientists said. Instead, the laws are aimed at short-cutting environmental studies, reducing public involvement and preventing courts from enforcing environmental laws.

The role of the timber industry in federal forest management would also unfairly increase under the deceptive guise of promoting decision-making by “collaborative” groups, the scientists wrote.

Continue reading

Will Congress act on wildfire funding?

Budget ‘borrowing’ reaches $700 million as political gridlock prevents meaningful budget reform

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A wildfire in Yellowstone National Park. Photo via National Park Service.

Staff Report

With wildfires still raging across the West, the U.S. Forest Service has already used up its firefighting budget for the year. This week, the agency notified Congress that another $250 million will be needed to cover the spiraling costs.

Subsequently, top cabinet officials sent a formal letter asking Congress to change the way the nation pays for firefighting so that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can invest in forest and rangeland restoration, and make lands less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.

Continue reading

Rocky Mountain National Park warns of late season fire danger

Big Meadows fire Rocky Mountain National Park Arial view

The 2013 Big Meadows fire in Rocky Mountain National Park scorched more than 600 acres. Photo courtesy RMNP.

Drying grasses and shrubs up fire danger in parts of Colorado

Staff Report

FRISCO — Summer may be winding down, but the wildfire season is not over yet. In the past ten days, fire managers and park rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park have responded to four illegal, escaped campfires.

All four were quickly extinguished, each burning less than 0.25 acres, but park managers say they all had the potential to spread quickly and threaten lives and property. Continue reading

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