Federal stimulus money is coming to the White River National Forest to deal with the spread of pine beetles, and local environmentalists and government leaders are pushing for legislation that would bring more federal dollars to Colorado, and possibly throughout the West, to deal with the problem.
“The federal government has access to resources on a scale that no one else has,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, who is testifying in front of legislators in Washington this week in a hearing on the pine beetle epidemic.
But Shoemaker and others said it would be a misuse of public funds to spend money to try to halt the attack, which has ravaged 2,200 miles of forest land from the Canadian border to Mexico.
Instead, he said, money should be directed to processing the dead timber in an effort to reduce dangers to the public and the threat of wildfires.
“We quit looking at how to stop the beetle years ago and started looking at how we can do some action on the ground that will protect human life, protect public infrastructure and protect human water supplies,” said Gary Severson, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, a group that includes Pitkin and Eagle counties.
Jackson County Commissioner John Rich plans to testify on behalf of that group in Washington.
The groups are members of a Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative that was formed to help grapple with the effects of the beetle epidemic. Beetle infestations have occurred cyclically, but this is considered the most massive spread in recorded history.
The cooperative includes environmentalists, the timber industry, land agencies and others trying to find ways to handle the spread of the insect.
The mountain pine beetle has killed some 2 million acres of trees in Colorado, particularly in Eagle, Routt, Summit and Grand counties.
Aspen and Pitkin County have agreed to join the group For the Forest in a plan to try to save trees on Smuggler Mountain from the beetle epidemic by cutting down 120 infected lodgepole pines and treating remaining trees with verbenone, a natural hormone believed to keep beetles from infesting them.
Shoemaker said he supported the plan’s removal of the affected trees, but he questioned the effectiveness of verbenone. Some scientists say the chemical is ineffective in an epidemic.
“The use of verbenone may have a short-term effect,” he said, “but I think experience has shown that ultimately when the trees with verbenone on them are the only green lodgepole trees around, they’re like ice cream to the beetles. Eventually they’ll get overwhelmed. You have to ask the question of the value of continuing to put public resources in to save a few trees that may ultimately — and experience leads us to conclude will ultimately — succumb to the beetle.”
Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist for the Wilderness Society, said studies show verbenone to be effective only as a “temporary fix.”
“As long as the epidemic is out there the trees remain susceptible,” he said. “The use of hormones, I don’t believe, has proven effective once it’s gone to the level that it is now.”
The White River National Forests is one of three forests in Colorado to share in $13 million in mitigation work. Members of the cooperative said they would like to see a bill introduced in Congress this year directing monies to beetle mitigation and forest health issues.
Severson said the cooperative would oppose any effort to do away with environmental review processes in the interest of grappling with the beetles.
That would be a “poison pill that’s going to kill the legislation,” Shoemaker said.