Sen. Udall seeking another $50 million for forest work

Sen. Mark Udall, left, discusses forest health work with Paul Semmer, a lands specialist with the Dillon Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.

Udall’s Summit County visit includes a stop at a clear-cut beetle-kill area near Dillon Reservoir on Denver Water land

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By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) said he’s looking for another $50 million for the U.S. Forest Service to pay for emergency tree-clearing near neighborhoods and critical infrastructure in forests hit hard by mountain pine beetles.

It’s not getting any easier to win support for forest funding in Washington, D.C. these days, as elected officials are distracted by upcoming elections, the continuing economic crisis and other national problems, but during a short stop Sunday afternoon in Dillon, Udall said he would work with other western senators to keep the funds flowing.

Walking up a short distance into a clear-cut area above Dillon Reservoir, Udall said he wanted to get a sense of how the funding he’s garnered for pine-beetle work is being applied on the ground. Of special concern are power line corridors across the west. A fire, or even just a major blowdown along a section of the grid could create widespread power outages across the region.

The Forest Service is about a week away from a decision that would authorize power companies across the West to clear trees outside the power line rights-of-way, said Cal Wettstein, the bark beetle incident commander for the epicenter of the insect outbreak in three national forests in Colorado and Wyoming. About 550 miles of power lines are at risk in the area.

In the three-forest area, about 3.5 million acres are affected. Across the West, the beetles have spread across about 17.5 million acres.

In most cases, the rights-of-way extend out about 10 to 20 feet either side of the power lines, but in many places, there are trees growing outside that corridor that could still fall on the lines, and the fire danger is ever-present, said Tony Dixon, deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain region.

Who will pay is still a question mark, but once the Forest Service has approved the work, it at least sets the stage so the trees can be cleared when the money is available, Dixon said. To make it easier, the agency has waived normal fees for the power companies, he added.

Although the clear cut was on private land, owned by Denver Water, local and regional forest service rangers explained how healthy forests legislation (the Healthy Forests Restoration Act) carried by Udall has helped the agency move forward with site-specific projects under a streamlined review that doesn’t require evaluation of multiple options.

Several forest health projects in Summit County authorized under the law are currently in various stages of planning or execution, including some critical treatments in the town of Dillon’s watershed, as well as a large wildland-urban interface project planned around Breckenridge.

One big stumbling block for all forest health work is the lack of a commercial market for the timber. The state’s only operating sawmill, near Montrose, is in receivership, and is only operating on a limited basis, according to Forest Service rangers.

Several other plants turning the wood into pellet fuel are struggling in the current economy, and the biomass energy industry has not yet evolved to the point where it’s a viable consumer of the wood.

“We haven’t cracked that code yet,” Udall said, referring to the potential for using dead wood to generate heat and electricity. He said biomass energy needs to be addressed in the context of a national energy strategy, something that seems to be dead in the water in Congress pending the fall elections.

Dixon said a comprehensive industry wide approach is needed to bring biomass into the forest health picture on a meaningful scale.

Does beetle-kill increase runoff?

Beetle-kill conundrum: Plenty of wood, but too pricey

Forest health requires sustained community committment

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