New beetle invader arrives in Washington forests


Washington’s forests are in poor health, with trees diseased by pine beetles, spruce budworms and root rot. The situation got so bad that in 2012, State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark declared a forest health-hazard warning for parts of Eastern Washington, a warning that is still in effect two years later.

It’s no coincidence then that Washington is enduring one of its worst wildfire seasons ever, including the Carlton Complex fire, the largest single wildfire in state history. Diseased trees are kindling for forest fires.

The rampant fires have led the Seattle Times, the Olympian and other community leaders to demand more funding for what’s been the solution all along: active forest management.

As we noted in a previous post, here’s what the Olympian said last month:

Federal, state and local elected officials can’t control climatic conditions, but they can fully fund restorative forest health programs and mandate Community Wildfire Protection Plans to prevent forest fires and minimize the social and economic impact when they do occur.

The U.S. Forest Service is the largest landowner in the state of Washington, but it has effectively abandoned all active forest management practices since the spotted owl controversy in the 1990s. This has created a dangerous excess of wildfire fuel on federally managed land in our state’s forests.

This intentional inaction by the U.S. Forest Service has placed an undue burden on the state Department of Natural Resources to use its precious resources doing restorative work on federal land. Meanwhile, the state Legislature has slashed DNR funding to upgrade forest management practices to keep pace with forest growth on its own land.

It’s a fool’s game, because taxpayers ultimately pay for unhealthy forests through fire suppression costs, and the loss of jobs and property. The state spends tens of millions annually to fight fires, and that amount doubles when the cost to local governments is added.

Here’s the problem: the health of the trees is only going to get worse if the forests aren’t more actively managed quickly. There’s a new beetle in town and it’s killing trees in Southern Washington, an area of the state that hadn’t been hard hit by the insect infestation. 

Just this week, Gov. Jay Inslee met with local leaders to discuss the state’s new invader: the California Fivespined Ips bark beetle.

Their larvae kill clumps of pine trees in California, Oregon and Washington’s mountainside forests. And this year, the California Fivespined Ips beetles have gotten worse. Aerial surveys show about 2,800 trees across 650 acres of ponderosa pines killed by the beetles along the Columbia River Gorge, as well as along the eastern slopes of Washington’s southern Cascades, according to Todd Murray, Washington State University Extension Service director for Klickitat and Skamania counties. By last year, the beetles had been spotted in small clumps as far north as Goldendale and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The problem is that, if unchecked, the California Fivespined Ips and other beetle species have the potential to kill 2.7 million acres — a quarter of Washington’s forests — in 15 years, said JT Austin, senior policy advisor on natural resources issues to Gov. Jay Inslee. Other beetle species — such as western pine beetles and red turpentine beetles — have gain footholds in the past. The California Fivespined Ips beetles first showed up in Washington in 2010, bringing with them the potential to make beetle infestations of state’s forests much more widespread.

…Last year, Inslee asked the Legislature to appropriate $20 million for anti-beetle measures, but the tight overall state budget ultimately trimmed that to $4 million.

“We’re way behind the curve on having the funds to do it. …. The state is going to have to have revenue to support this,” Inslee told about 35 Klickitat and Skamania county elected officials, government administrators, tribal leaders and business representatives Wednesday in Bingen, on the Columbia.

In a Seattle Times story earlier this month, Todd Myers of the free-market think tank Washington Policy Center said more active forest management is necessary. But the state’s forests are in poor health because of a lack of active forest management, not other trends.

Myers agrees…that thinning Washington’s forests would help reduce the risk of large fires and said lack of action over the years has contributed to a more dangerous wildfire climate here.

“Ironically,” Myers, who used to work at (the state Department of Natural Resources), says, “I would argue this is a man-made catastrophe.”

The voices around the state and across the political spectrum continue to grow louder: let’s save our forests from neglect by managing them in an active, rather than passive, way.