Beetles burrow in to crowded forests


One of the most dangerous biproducts of not actively managing forests is the infestation of the bark beetle. This tiny, 5-millimeter insect loves to “attack evergreen trees, burrowing in, eating away, eventually leaving the tree a red-needled husk of itself,” according to Idaho’s Times-News.

And when forests aren’t actively managed — because of federal forest policy or other restrictions — the beetles have a very easy time spreading from tree to tree. And that’s when epidemics start.

The beetles are spreading rapidly in many Western states. Just take three as an example:

From the Chadron Record:

The U.S. Forest Service released its results of the 2010 forest health aerial survey Friday. The survey showed 4 million acres of heavily damaged trees in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. The infestation doubled from 22,000 acres to 44,000 acres in the Black Hills last year.

So what’s the key to fighting the beetle, according to Nebraska Forest Service forester Doak Nickerson?

“To get ahead of this monster, it requires forest management. That’s the only way we can fight this thing,” Nickerson said, adding that there is a growing awareness of the problem.

Just in the past week, there have been several stories published that show beetle infestations lead to increased risk of forest fires. Hollowed-out, useless trees are perfect kindle for fire.

A study by NASA and the U.S. Forest Service showed that infested areas in north-central Washington were more suspectible to larger, more destructive forest fires. And that area, around the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, has seen its share of major fires recently, including the 2006 Tripod Fire, which burned across 175,000 acres.

In Idaho, the U.S. Forest Service is using pheromone-infused plastic flakes to try to keep the beetles at bay in key areas and help protect from fire.

And in Alberta, Canada, the government is working with timber companies to harvest the infested trees.

Alberta is also focusing on prevention, encouraging forestry companies to ramp up harvesting of beetle-infested pine rather than leave the dead timber to stand.

“We want to harvest these beetle-infested areas at an early stage to avoid forest fires that we have recently seen in British Columbia,” said Brady Whittaker, executive director of the Alberta Forest Products Association.

“Can we keep on top of it? It is certainly our goal, but it is a difficult goal.”

That’s all well and good, but what about managing and thinning the forests before the beetles arrive? Active management is the most effective strategy, but federal policy prevents the kind of management our forests need.