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Climate, not beetle-kill, the biggest factor in wildfire equation

New research could help inform forest management

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Clear-cutting beetle-killed lodgepole stands has left remaining trees susceptible to blow-down.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — While many forest managers and politicians are still broad-brushing the wildfire danger associated with beetle-killed forests, a new report once again suggests that the fire hazard linked with beetle-kill has been overstated.

After reviewing some of the latest research, the authors of the paper concluded that, “To date, the majority of studies have found no increase in fire occurrence, extent, or severity following outbreaks of spruce beetle … and mountain pine beetle … in Colorado, Wyoming, and other areas.”

Instead, there’s more and more evidence that climate — specifically global warming — is the main factor.

“The main message is that, if we want to understand fire dynamics, we need to understand the ultimate cause and effect,” said CSU professor Barry Noon, one of the coauthors. “The real drivers are drought conditions, temperatures and precipitation. That highlights the human factor in the equation,” Noon said, referring to global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions. “That may make us uncomfortable, but the evidence just keeps accumulating all the time,” he said. Continue reading

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Climate: Bark beetles invading high-elevation forests

Whitebark pines are in imminent danger of extinction, and global warming is one of the most significant threats to the species. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

Whitebark pines are in imminent danger of extinction, and global warming is one of the most significant threats to the species. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

Researchers see threat to whitebark pines

By Summit Voice

FRISCO —Bark beetles have already killed millions of acres of mid-elevation forests across the West, and warming temperatures are enabling the tree-killing bugs to invade higher elevations, where they are attacking trees that haven’t evolved with strong defenses to repel them.

Global warming is essentially giving the insects a huge advantage, as the trees, with their long lifespans, have no chance to develop biological resistance, according to researchers from the the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who report a rising threat to the whitebark pine forests of the northern Rocky Mountains. Continue reading

Bucks for beetles: Bipartisan farm bill amendment to double funds for beetle mitigation passes U.S. Senate

More federal funding could help western forests recover from the bark beetle epidemic.

House gets another crack at measure

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service is one step closer to getting a funding boost for bark beetle mitigation, as a 2012 Farm Bill amendment offered by Sen. Mark Udall and Sen. Michael Bennet passed the Senate Wednesday.

The amendment would double the proposed budget for beetle-related forest work from $100 million to $200 million. The full budget bill still has to pass the Senate, then heads back to the House.

Along with funding, Udall and Bennet want to see more public-private sector partnerships developed to address bark-beetle epidemic. Continue reading

Colorado: More beetle-kill bucks wanted

Beetle-killed forests dominate some mid-elevation landscapes in Colorado.

Udall, Bennet seek to double appropriation in 2012 farm bill

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service needs more money to stay on pace with removing beetle-killed trees from western forests, and Colorado’s two senators this week introduced an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that would double the budgeted amount from $100 million to $200 million.

The bill would encourage the Forest Service to partner with the private sector to develop some economic value for the dead trees, something that has proven to be a vexing challenge for struggling sawmills in the region and for proponents of using the wood for energy, who have gained very little traction as more and more studies show that large-scale bioenergy from forest products is not sustainable. Continue reading

Environment: Pine beetles add insult to injury

Study finds the insect epidemic may increase ambient levels of VOCs

Bark beetles may increase air pollution, as beetle-killed trees release up to 20 times more VOCs into the atmosphere.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — As if millions of acres of dead forests aren’t enough, the waves of bark beetles spreading across the West may also be contributing to increased air pollution in the region.

A new study shows the insects can make trees release  up to 20 times more of certain organic substances that foster haze and air pollution in forested areas. The gases, classified as volatile organic compounds — meant to be a defense against the beetles — are released from the beetles’ bore holes.

VOCs are known to contribute to smog and haze that obscures views of natural landscapes in U.S. national parks and other natural areas where tourists flock in summer. The haze may in turn harm human health, reduce visibility and affect climate. Continue reading

Global Warming: Pine beetles thriving at higher elevations

CU researchers document accelerated breeding by tree-killing insects

Colorado's high-elevation forests are becoming more susceptible to insect infestation as the climate warms dramatically. In this image taken from I-70 in Summit County, beetle-killed forests are visible on the Frisco Peninsula, in the middle distance, and near Breckenridge, in the background below Mt. Guyot and Mt. Baldy.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — In one of the clearest signs yet that global warming is having a direct impact on the environment and economy of the Colorado high country, a trio of University of Colorado researchers say they’ve shown that mountain pine beetles have responded to climate change by speeding up their breeding cycle.

Because of the extra annual generation of beetles, there could be up to 60 times as many beetles attacking trees in any given year, their study found. And in response to warmer temperatures at high elevations, pine beetles also are better able to survive and attack trees that haven’t previously developed defenses.

That puts other high-elevation pine species, including limber, whitebark and even the iconic bristlecone pines at risk, according to CU graduate student Scott Ferrenberg, who launched the high elevation pine beetle study.

“They have not yet reached their maximum development rate. They have the potential to develop even faster,” Ferrenberg said, explaining why the current epidemic is unprecedented. “Nobody really understood what climate was going to mean in this context,” he added. Continue reading

Forest Service chief fields budget questions

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

Bark beetles, climate change and firefighting among the key concerns in U.S. Senate hearing

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Intertwined concerns about overall forest health, bark beetles, climate change and wildfires took center state Tuesday at a full hearing of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle questioned Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell about his agency’s ability to meet its obligations to address the multiple challenges.

U.S. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, said it’s critical to engage the private sector and encourage the use of beetle kill products by expanding markets for forest products. That requires streamlining contracting procedures and giving incentives to companies that use beetle-killed wood for construction, as well as wood pellets and biomass for energy production. Continue reading

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