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.
“The private sector is key to dealing with this epidemic,” Udall said. “In a state like Colorado, where there is a large need for forest treatments but few forest-management businesses, the Forest Service should tailor timber sales and stewardship contracts to fit this industry, and work to try to move at the pace of industry as much as possible,” Udall said after the hearing. See a video of the exchange at Udall’s website.
Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, used the hearing to emphasize concerns about how climate change may affect long-term forest health. He aksed Tidwell whether global warming leads to more fires, and more bark beetles surviving through the winter — and took a shot at some of his Republican colleagues who have expressed doubt about the state of climate science.
“There is a climate change denial among some of my colleagues that I find very disturbing,” Franken said.
“When it comes to fire, definitely, yes, we’re seeing much long fire seasons … as much as 60 -70 days longer, and more severe fire behavior, partly due to extended droughts,” Tidwell replied.
In general, climate change is increasing the frequency of disturbance and severe weather events that affect forests. Tidwell said the current widespread bark beetle infestation (which is waning in Colorado) is one of the best examples of climate change impacts.
The beetles are surviving at higher elevations and the infestations are continuing for longer time periods due at least in part to milder winters, Tidwell said.
South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson asked Tidwell what his state can expect in the agency’s budget to deal with the growing pine beetle infestation in the Black Hills.
“There’s no way there will ever be enough appropriated funding to do the restoration that’s needed,” Tidwell said. “We need the forest products industry to remove the biomass.”
Other pressing needs exist in New Hampshire, where Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said that Hurricane Irene did $10 million worth of damage across 800,000 acres of national forest that sees 6 millio visitors per year.
“We do expect to be able to send some additional funding … it won’t be everything that they need,” Tidwell said.
He also answered questions about firefighting resources in what could be a long, hot summer in the central part of the country, saying the agency is short eight air tankers, but is looking to contract with private companies to ensure that there are adequate resources.
Additionally, the Forest Service will rely on partnering with the Air National Guard and using large helicopters for aerial firefighting efforts.