8 Jul 2009, 8:12pm
Saving Forests
by admin

Montana State Forester: We need an integrated response to mountain pine beetle

Beetle epidemic requires us to move past timber wars of the past

From the Clark Fork Chronicle, June 30 2009 [here]

by Bob Harrington, Montana State Forester

We are in the midst of a dramatic transformation of the forested landscape in many parts of Montana. Thousands of acres of pine forests –- which had been a continuous sea of green –- are now mottled with an ever-increasing number of bright red trees. If you live or have traveled near Helena, Butte, Bozeman, Deer Lodge, or Seeley Lake, you’ve seen the effects.

Since 2000, the mountain pine beetle has killed an estimated 3 million acres of Montana forests. Foresters and fire managers have been concerned about potential effects of these insects for several years, and have tried to help prepare for the epidemic we knew was coming. This task has been difficult, for several reasons.

Montana has been in a prolonged drought for the past decade, and this has dramatically reduced tree vigor – trees that are water-stressed cannot effectively fend off insect pests. Normally, cold temperatures during the winter would help keep the bark beetle population in check, but Montana hasn’t had a prolonged cold snap during any winters in recent memory. A lack of wildfires or forest management has led to densely stocked stands –- another cause for stressed trees.

As a result, conditions are ripe for an epidemic: we have an increasing beetle population, an abundance of available food in the form of stressed trees, and a mild climate that enables beetles to survive over the winter. Seeing the dramatic changes across the landscape in just the past few years causes me to be concerned about what other forests will die, and what additional Montana communities will be at risk of wildfire in the coming years.

Mountain pine beetle activity is certainly a natural process, and like most insects, the beetle population has historically declined after a few years. But while most infestations are cyclic, many entomologists believe that this epidemic may continue as long as there is an available food source and mild winters.

It is difficult to predict the weather, but the available food source is evident -– there are hundreds of thousands of acres of mature lodgepole and ponderosa pine in the path of the beetle. Although we couldn’t prevent this epidemic, there were and continue to be actions which reduce the threats to forests, communities, and the loss of economic value from prolonged bark beetle attacks.

We need an integrated response to mountain pine beetle that includes the harvest of infested and/or dead trees, as well as thinning live trees to help improve their vigor. In partnership with the US Forest Service, the Montana Department of Natural Resources is currently distributing nearly $10 million dollars of federal stimulus funds for thinning and fuels reduction on state and private lands in western Montana. Managers of DNRC state trust lands, and thousands of private forest landowners, are working to hard to respond to the beetle epidemic on their lands as well.

A significant part of this epidemic is on federal forest lands, so federal agencies must also have adequate funding and a social license for rapid response in order to make a difference. The good news is that another epidemic, one of collaboration on forest management and reducing fire risk in the wildland-urban interface, is quietly building across the state.

Groups such as the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition, Swan Ecosystem Center, Montana Forest Restoration Committee, FireSafe Montana, Clearwater Resource Council, Blackfoot Challenge, and partnership proposals focused on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Lolo National Forests all hold tremendous promise to move beyond the timber wars of the past.

We should capitalize on these collaborative efforts to begin treating affected or susceptible forests near communities and municipal watersheds, and improve the resiliency of forests on federal, state and private lands. Montana’s forestry professionals, the forest industry, and the conservation community are ready to work together to respond to this challenge.

8 Jul 2009, 9:30pm
by John M.

I certainly agree with Harrington’s comments, but I wish he had pushed a little more. It isn’t just the loss of trees that is important, but also the loss of habitat, changes to the hydrology, soil damage, air quality, and of course the impact on local communities and their economic well being.

The anti everything believers continue to fall back on its “natural” as an excuse for not doing science based interventions. We could argue the issue of “natures way” till doomsday and still not agree. However, the point is whether these are natural processes or not, the fact is we have 300 plus million people sucking on natural resource every day in order to, yes, survive. The growing shortage of natural resources is, to most people, a non issue except for the increases in water bills, electric costs, filling the gas tank or buying food, and they tend to believe it the greedy merchant rather than the incremental shortage of basic resources.

I live in Oregon, but I damn well care what Montana does with Columbia watersheds. Letting their water collection and storage abilities go to hell will impact my irrigation and power costs as well as my quality of life as water becomes less available. And I am not inclined to think kindly of people who want to cost me money for their playing around and pretending that stopping science based management of our natural resources, our forest/watersheds is the way to go. In my darker moments I think of these people as arrogant, selfish humans with no concern or owned responsibility for paying for the cost of living or protecting this land. But I am sure those thoughts were promoted by some really bad red peppers at dinner.

Good for Harrington to come out strongly on the need to care for the land and not abandon it, but as I said, I wish he pushed a little harder on the total cost of not caring for the land or the people who depend on it.

9 Jul 2009, 7:37am
by Larry H.

I was up on the Bitterroot back in 2002 and could see that they were going to have further problems because of their management practices. When you set aside vast areas of stressed timber as “potential lynx habitat”, you are just asking for an epidemic of bark beetles. (On a side note, just WHEN does a forest cease to be “potential habitat? When ALL of the trees are DEAD?!?!?) I trace the problems back to the compromise of leaving so much dead and dying trees from big fires and to overstocking. Not salvaging dying trees always seems to result in accelerated bark beetle populations. I’ve seen it on the San Bernardino and the Eldorado, as well. I’d be willing to bet that there are new outbreaks around the Biscuit Fire, too.

9 Jul 2009, 1:11pm
by Forrest Grump

Take this with a grain of salt.

The overall premise is good, but the players are not. The industry side here is in complete desperation. In order to get a survival wood flow, they have cast aside their allies (admittedly weak ones) in the modern recreation category, and are making nice with the same people who brought them to their knees.

The environmentalists are realizing that management is necessary, belatedly. But it will be management strictly on their very limited terms, and as Harrington implies, by “funding” references, not economically sound practices.

The forestry side is willing to concede any amount of wilderness and road closures for recreation in order to get some level of predictable wood flow from whatever base will be conceded to them.

The larger public, which is being set up to lose much of the semi-developed recreation resource it values, has been completely cut off.

9 Jul 2009, 1:27pm
by Mike

Great comments. I would add only that restoration forestry is the solution to the myriad forest problems facing Montana.

I wish Harrington would have used that term. Restoration is pro-active, not reactionary. Restoration addresses vegetation, habitat, fire, beetle infestations, recreation, watershed health, public health and safety, and economics.

Poor stewardship got Montana into this mess. It is going to take good stewardship to recover. Restoration is synonymous with good stewardship.

Harrington and Montana would be well-advised to explore the concept and details of restoration forestry. Old methods, even if “integrated,” will not suffice. New thinking and new types of treatments at landscape scales are necessary to avert this and future disasters. Restoration forestry is the road they must travel.

9 Jul 2009, 2:25pm
by Bob Z.

To build on Grump’s observations regarding industry depending on environmentalist buy-in: a major problem is that one reason the Enviros have such a limited vision of active management is that they have no (zero) experience in forest management. They are ignorant on the topic in the strictest sense of the term.

A good definition of knowledge is that it requires a combination of information and experience. A second problem is that both industry and the USFS are now largely operated by “desk people” with very little or no actual forest management experience.

You could write the best restoration/operational plan in the world, but: a) who is available to even recognize that achievement, and b) who would know how to implement it?

The equipment is gone, but can be purchased. But who can put it to work?



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