Latest compilation of research underscores existing findings that thinning far from homes won’t stop the bugs from spreading and won’t reduce the fire risk
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY —Thinning lodgepole forests in the backcountry, far from towns and neighborhoods, does little to make people safer from wildfires and won’t prevent the spread of pine beetles in western forests, according to a report released last week by the Ashland, Oregon-based National Center for Conservation Science & Policy.
The researchers concluded that limited federal land management resources should be used to conduct fuel reduction efforts directly adjacent to communities by creating create defensible space around homes, including using flame retardant building materials and removing brush and trees within several hundred feet of homes. View the report in a Scribd.com window at the end of this story.
“The science is clear. Unless preventive measures are aimed at creating defensible space around homes, the federal government will be shoveling taxpayer money down a black hole,” said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist for the organization and one of the report’s co-authors. “Logging in the backcountry will do little to prevent insect infestations or reduce fire risks, and it will not solve Colorado’s concerns over dying trees,” he said.
Almost all the existing fire research shows the most effective treatments are within 130 feet of homes. In some cases, thinning and clearing trees a little farther out — up to 400 feet — is justified to give firefighters room to safely maneuver equipment, and to enable evacuations. More information at Firewise.org.
The report also reiterated previous findings that beetle outbreaks in backcountry forests and roadless areas are unlikely to heighten fire risk in adjacent communities. There is no evidence showing a causal link between insect outbreaks and the incidence of wildfires, the study concludes.
“Fires in lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests, such as those found in Colorado, are primarily determined by weather conditions,” said Dominik Kulakowski, a professor of geography and biology at Clark University in Massachusetts.
“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,” said Kulakowski, who has been researching the interactions between bark beetle outbreaks and forest fires in Colorado for more than a decade.
“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. “Because logging and thinning cannot effectively alleviate the overriding effects of climate, it will do little or nothing to control these outbreaks.”
“It’s not worth thinning on a broad landscape level, especially in roadless areas,” said Barry Noon, a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University. “The ecological cost is too high.”
Building new temporary and permanent roads in roadless areas to combat beetle outbreaks could have substantial “short- and long-term ecological costs,” including damage to wildlife and water, increased wildfire risk and the introduction of invasive species, the report concluded.
Thinning as a forest management tool also has unintended long-term consequences, stimulating the growth of brush that can act as a ladder fuel and increase the fire danger unless there in ongoing and costly treatment of the same areas, the report concludes.
The authors tied the information in the report to Colorado’s efforts to adopt a new rule for the management of national forest roadless areas.
DellaSala said the state’s proposed rule would downgrade or declassify the status of about 235,000 acres of roadless land in order to enable forest health treatments.
He expressed concern about Colorado’s “clear movement” away from the guidelines of a 2001 roadless rule that already gives the Forest Service discretion to reduce fuels and address wildfire danger.
“We should be going to high-priority areas first, the areas that already have roads with a history of intensive management,” he said.
In general, the U.S. Forest Service has moved away from proposed large-scale thinning in the backcountry, but in some site-specific proposals (The current Breckenridge forest health project, for example), there is continued debate over where the Red Zone ends and the backcountry begins.
In some situations, forest managers say they’re trying to create fire breaks and safe areas for firefighter operations. In other cases, there’s clear pressure to combine forest health treatments with a viable commercial timber sale component to help pay for the work. And finally, some forest experts argue for widespread and active management, including thinning and clear cuts, to speed forest regeneration.
Some key findings from the report.
– Insect outbreaks and fires have been part of the ecology of these forests for millennia.
– Ongoing outbreaks of insects are probably caused primarily by climate.
– Insect outbreaks in roadless areas are not likely to heighten fire risk in adjacent communities.
– Tree-cutting is not likely to control ongoing bark beetle outbreaks or other insect species common to Colorado.
– Thinning in roadless areas is not likely to alleviate future large-scale epidemics of bark beetle.
– Tree-cutting in roadless areas will not keep communities safe from wildfire.
– Building the roads necessary to enter roadless areas affects their ecological values.
– Green and familiar forests will eventually return fol- lowing insect outbreaks in most locations.
– The 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule allows suf- ficient flexibility to manage Colorado’s roadless areas.
More information on the report authors:
Barry Noon is a professor of wildlife ecology at Colorado State University. Dr. Noon has studied forest wildlife and the effects of land-use practices on wildlife for over 30 years. He has provided input to management decisions of federal public lands numerous times during his career, with a particular focus on the conservation of threatened and endangered species.
Scott Black is executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. He has degrees in ecology, plant science, and entomology from Colorado State University. He has extensive experience in endangered-species conservation, pollinator conservation, macroinvertebrate monitoring, and forest and range management issues. He is also the author of “Logging to Control Insects: The Science and Myths Behind Managing Forest Insect Pests: A Synthesis of Independently Reviewed Research.” Black has presented to universities across the United States, as well as to international meetings and the National Academy of Sciences.
Dominik Kulakowski is currently a professor of Geography and Biology at Clark University in Massachusetts and` formerly worked as a research scientist at the University of Colorado. He has been conducting research on the interactions between bark beetle outbreaks and forest fires in Colorado for over a decade. Dominick DellaSala is president and chief scientist of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, which uses science to predict and prepare for climate change. Dominick has a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from University of Michigan. His expertise is in forest and fire ecology, endangered species management, and climate change science. Dominick is also incoming President of the North American Section of the Society for Conservation Biology.