The U.S. Senate’s Energy and National Resources Committee on Thursday approved a bill by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall providing the U.S. Forest Service with wider authority to treat forests with trees killed by mountain pine beetles.
The next step for the bill is a full senate vote.
Udall also pledged to attach a request for $50 million in forest health funds to any appropriations bill that comes through the senate this year.
In a conference call with Gov. Bill Ritter and reporters, Udall said his recent visit to beetle kill sites in Aspen and Summit County convinced him the federal government needs a more visible presence on the ground in affected areas. He additionally said the feds need to be more transparent in how they’re spending $40 million of forest service money allocated to the beetle battle last year, $30 million of which is set aside for Colorado’s forests.
“The communities didn’t feel like they’d seen the dollars,” he said. “You see this threat everyday and the citizens of those communities have the right to see how those dollars are being spent.”
To that end, in July the forest service issued the first of what Udall said will be monthly reports on their on-the-ground beetle mitigation work to protect infrastructure, 640 miles of roads and 240 miles of trails in Colorado threatened by falling beetle-infested trees. Most of the federal effort is going to highly-trafficked recreation areas with massive beetle kill, like Steamboat Springs and Summit County.
Udall recently visited the top of Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain where for the last two summers, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County, and the local nonprofit For the Forest have partnered to treat trees with pheromones to keep beetles away, and airlifted out about 250 pines already infested with the killer bugs.
He praised the project as the sort of public/private collaboration the west needs to fight beetles. Following the visit, he posted a message on his Twitter page reading, “Aspen is at the leading edge in the fight vs. the bark-beetle epidemic.”
He and the governor on Thursday underscored the need for similar partnerships to explore the potential for using wood from beetle-killed trees to develop renewable biomass energy.
A consortium of groups in the Roaring Fork Valley, in fact, is doing just that and has applied for a grant from the governor’s energy office to get to work. For the Forest, the Community Office of Resource Efficiency, the Aspen Global Change Institute, Flux Farm and the Sopris Foundation are seeking $20,000 in state funding toward an $88,000 feasibility study for a beetle/biomass project in the valley.
The study would analyze the supply of woody biomass in the region while collecting input from local counties, municipalities and utility companies about their interest in biomass development. It would also launch symposiums for construction and design professionals, and interested citizens, to gather information before launching into any specific project, said For the Forest executive director John Bennett.
Udall and Ritter said they have both personally urged U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to take a tour to view the impact of the millions of acres of beetle-killed trees in Colorado. Vilsack’s department oversees the forest service.
They said Thursday that Vilsack expressed a desire to take a beetle tour later this month.
“I asked the secretary to communicate with local communities,” Udall said. “There is a need for that . . . . We’re going to really push him to come here and see the devastation on the ground.”
“He seems very open to coming and touring it from the air or on the ground,” Ritter added.
Udall said he is trying to communicate the urgency of Colorado’s sick trees, which may already be falling at a rate of 100,000 per day. Along with threats to infrastructure and recreation areas, the massive death of trees puts the mountain west at greater risk for rampant wildfires and watershed degradation. He compared the disaster’s scope to the regional impact Hurricane Katrina had on the Gulf Coast.
“Colorado is ground zero for a slow-moving natural disaster,” Udall said. “It’s a Katrina-like event, but it’s slow moving.”