Environment: Can forest health be legislated?

Proposed Senate bill would require widespread national forest logging

Healthy undergrowth and lodgepole regeneration in an unlogged stand of beetle-killed lodgepole pines near Frisco, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.
Salvage logging in a stand of beetle-killed lodgepole pines in Frisco, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.
Salvage logging in a stand of beetle-killed lodgepole pines in Frisco, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

*This story has been corrected to include Sen. Michael Bennet as the primary author of the proposed bill. That information was left out of the previous version due to an editing error.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal land managers could get wider authority for more backcountry logging under a new bill proposed in the U.S. Senate by Michael Bennet (D-CO), along with co-sponsors Mark Udall (D-CO), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Max Baucus (D-MT).

The National Forest Insect and Disease Treatment Act is being pitched as a way to   help Forest Service treat insect and disease epidemics and promote overall forest health. As drafted, it directs the agency to treat threatened watersheds while prioritizing preservation of old-growth and large trees when possible.

The treatments that would be carried out under the authorities provided in the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which enables expedited decisions on forest projects. The Agriculture Secretary, in consultation with state officials, would designate at least one sub-watershed on at least one national forest in each state that is experiencing these forest health challenges.

Some groups may see the measure as yet another misguided attempt to authorize more widespread logging under the guise of forest health, instead of focusing attention and scare resources on protecting communities by treating areas directly in the ignition zone that threatens homes and other developments.

Many forest researchers say trying to treat large areas of forests for insects and other diseases is a questionable tactic. Many forest types in the West, including lodgepole and spruce stands, have simply reached the age at which they are susceptible to insect and disease mortality — a necessary part of the natural cycle of regeneration.

“A warming climate and a persistent drought are hurting our forests in Colorado, where so much of our state’s economy depends on the health and vitality of our lands and water,” said Bennet, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, Conservation and Natural Resources.

“Last summer’s devastating wildfires showed us how important it is to let the Forest Service actively manage our impaired and overgrown forests without Washington tying their hands behind their back,” he said.

The bill would specifically direct the Forest Service to treat one or more subwatersheds on all National Forests that that are experiencing:

  • Substantially increased tree mortality due to insect or disease infestation, based on annual forest health surveys conducted by the Secretary;
  • At risk of experiencing substantially increased tree mortality over the next 15 years due to insect or disease infestation, based on the most recent National Insect and Disease Risk Map published by the Forest Service; or
  • In an area in which the risk of hazard trees poses an imminent risk to public infrastructure, health, or safety.

Sen. Udall also advocated for active management as a way to protect natural resources.

“As the largest pine beetle epidemic in recorded history continues to spread, it’s clear that we need to treat more acres of insect-ravaged forest more intensely and effectively,” Udall said. “This bill would broaden the authorities to treat insect infestations on public lands so that we can better protect our natural resources and critical infrastructure while reducing the fuel loads that contribute to wildfires.”

“This bill builds on the Healthy Forests Restoration Act to provide more tools to combat threats to forests from insects and disease,” Wyden said. “Significantly, it would ensure continued protections for old growth and large trees, which were essential to my support to help pass the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in the Senate a decade ago.”

“Montana timber jobs rely on smart policies to address one of the worst bark beetle kills in the nation. This is a commonsense plan to give the Forest Service tools to improve forest health as we work on ways to prop up our loggers and small timber mills,” said Baucus, who spearheaded efforts to address Montana’s bark beetle epidemic through the Farm Bill forest title.

In 2012, over 15 million acres of forests across the nation were inventoried as having sustained damage from insects and diseases. In Colorado alone, over 800,000 acres were inventoried as damaged by the ongoing beetle epidemic. It is estimated that over the next 15 years, 58 million acres are at risk in the continental United States.


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