Report: Backcountry thinning won’t stop bark beetles

Tiny mountain pine beetles have unleashed an intense debate about how to best manage Colorado forest lands. PHOTO COURTESY COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY.

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 window at the end of this story.

A pine tree showing the typical signs of bark-beetle attack. PHOTO COURTESY COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY.

“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

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.

Roadless rules
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.

Bookmark and Share


4 thoughts on “Report: Backcountry thinning won’t stop bark beetles

  1. I’m a wildland firefighter, sitting here trying to remember the number of times I’ve watched wildfires burn in ways some chair-bound academician said wouldn’t or couldn’t happen. I’ve lost count. Nature doesn’t seem to give a levitating rodent’s patootie about what educated fools think or write. Obeying relatively simple laws of physics and chemistry, Nature just does it’s own thing despite reams of silly papers to the contrary.

    One day, hopefully, it will occur to some of these academicians to ask *firefighters* how fires burn. I’ve never been so questioned by an academician nor fought a wildfire next to one; neither has any firefighter of my acquaintance–and yes, we often discuss such things because the academicians and the politicians and the mis-named “enviromentalists” invariably make our jobs considerably more difficult. And infinitely more dangerous.

    I wouldn’t really expect them to publish what we’d say anyway, because we’re honest about it–not politically correct–and answer only to Nature’s fury, not the self-serving bureaucrats and funding-providers they answer to.

    Park and forest administrators love these disingenuous reports because they can, and do, use them as an excuse to divert more of their funding toward attracting and coddling tourists and away from proper forest-management, (ask me about the National Park Circus’…um…Service’s…$1,000,000–yep, six zeros–outhouse; better yet, google it). If there’s a bad fire, the officials will simply blame the report or the weather guessers or the ranger who told him this would happen if something wasn’t done. They’ll point the finger at anybody or anything–anything but their own negligence and dereliction of duty. Been there, seen that, got covered with soot. More than once.

    As a wildland firefighter, the *best* I can say about this disagraceful report is that the irresponsible negligence it encourages puts not only my life and the lives of my fellow firefighters in danger, but likewise endangers the families living in or near areas in which those hundreds–sometimes thousands–of dead trees abound. Carried by the winds, a burning firebrand can travel farther than a rifle bullet, with tremendously more destructive–often, deadly–results.

    Leaving–nationwide–millions of parasite-killed trees standing is as dangerous as leaving an open bucket of gasoline in the smoker’s lounge: It isn’t a question of IF it will result in a tragedy but WHEN. To even entertain such an idea is malicious if not downright criminal.

    There are 4 possible ignition sources for wildfires: Lightning, men, women and children. Inevitably, one of those ignition sources will meet up with the fuel. It may be sooner, it may be later, but it WILL happen.

    It takes only grade-school logic to understand that, if you remove the fuel, a fire is impossible. That is a word I rarely use but it here bears repeating: If you remove the fuel, a fire is IMPOSSIBLE. No one can die in it, no one’s home can be reduced to smoldering rubble, because without fuel, fires simply *cannot* happen. Period.

    The *worst* I can say about this outrageous, politically-tainted report is that it is a bald-faced lie. Someone will die, horribly, painfully, as a result of it. I hope it isn’t me. Or you. Or your children.

    By the way: I’m a *volunteer* firefighter. I don’t get paid one red cent to fight a fire–in fact, it costs me money out of my own pocket; to take time off to fight fires, to drive sometimes a couple of hundred miles round-trip to take courses (from firefighters, not academicians) in fire behavior, or incident-command structure, or standards, or survival or EMT certification. We’re not even given the $8 “Incident Response Pocket Guides” we constantly refer to at a fire, we have to buy them. What I have said here is based on experience, observation and conviction, not conflict-of-interest or political agenda.

  2. Growing up on small, largely self supporting farm, I have been a ‘sustainable environmentalist’ since long before it was fashionable…. and I have been a member of many environmental organizations over the years. I have devoted over 20,000 hours, since the beetle outbreak, to determining the issues and in creating opportunities from ALL ASPECTS and from EVERY ANGLE of view I can discover. This has resulted in an enormous variety of input, perspectives, and possible solutions. Yet I would not claim to be someone with all the answers, as so many of those writing these reports seem to profess. Though I do believe that the intentions are good, I am continually dismayed at these reports put forth by ‘experts, educators, and environmental scientists’ that are so narrowly focused on one, or just a few aspects of the issue, that they blatantly ignore and seem to disregard the compounding effects and the many variables that are the true REALITY!

    Ironically, I have first-hand experience of losing everything, with the huge exception of the lives of those around me, to fires – not once, but twice: in 1988 my home burned down, and in 2002 and 2003, I owned multiple properties located within just a few miles of the Hayman, the Snaking, and the High Meadow Fires of Colorado. The resulting losses and struggles were catastrophic to my life, and unfortunately, there will be many thousands more that will experience these losses and worse. There will be fires, and it is going to cost our country many lives of all species, and billions of dollars in losses and costs.

    Don’t believe it? Go to

    You will not need a degree of any kind, just logic and common sense to understand that there is much more at play here than ‘stopping the bugs from spreading’ or ‘debating the increased fire risk’ …. It becomes blatantly obvious that we NEED to clean up, replant, and build ‘natural soil retention and erosion systems’ throughout our watersheds to reduce the inevitable impacts. We NEED to cut back timber and ground fuels throughout our power grids, our roadways, our communications infrastructure, our urban interfaces, and our tourist visitation areas. If the public were made aware of the information compiled in the first half of this summary report, then it would become glaringly obvious that there is simply no other option that makes sense. It will cost far less to be preventative, than it will to simply spend time and money debating and waiting to clean up the devastation after the fires.

    In closing, I pose some questions for reflection: Where in this report does it address the likelihood and impact of sterilized soils baked into a moonscape environment where nothing can grow?
    Where does it address soil erosion and ash flooding into our waterways causing pollution that prevents millions from obtaining water?
    Where does it address the loss of water causing a lack of crops and food and the resulting hardships and societal upheaval?
    Where does it address the meltdown of our power grids causing lost lives and hundreds of millions in expenses? Where does it address the impacts that result from massive increases in carbon output resulting from billions of trees (currently over 50 million acres of decaying and burning timber) releasing all the stored carbon into the atmosphere? Where does it address the likely hundreds of millions that will be spent to fight fires and attempts to save entire communities?
    Where does it address the economic impacts of billions paid out in insurance claims to rebuild our homes and infrastructure?
    Where does it address the economic and job losses, and the resulting societal impacts, from lost tourism and home value declines?
    Where does it address the enormous losses to wild and aquatic life, and the likely cost of re-habitating some species? Aren’t concerns about disturbing our wildlife while protecting our infrastructure a lot less harmful than the result of millions of acres of sterilized forest lands?
    Where does it address the social impacts caused from the desperation of survival from shortages of water, food, and energy? (Simply look to the effects that Katrina had on society as millions struggled for survival in lieu of the losses of essential needs!
    “How many people were affected by Hurricane Katrina?
    Over 15 million people were affected by Katrina whether it was due to the economy, evacuations, gas prices, or even drinking water.”

    Where does it address the impacts of a financial crisis and the losses of jobs following devastating fires? Again, as an example, look to the impacts of Katrina…
    “How many jobs were lost because of Hurricane Katrina?
    An estimated 400,000 jobs were lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina sending the Gulf Coast into a financial crisis.”

    In summary, there are many more issues, but if we continue to spend huge amounts of time and money that could be applied to preventative actions, and continue to just ‘debate and wait’, then we are going to suffer an economic, environmental, and societal crisis that few can comprehend. We will never have all the answers, and we will make mistakes in any action taken, but the greatest mistake to be made is in the irresponsibility of simply continuing to do so little to protect ourselves from the inevitable.
    Sincerely and with great passion,
    Randy Piper

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s