Unnaturally overgrown forests, catastrophic fires, and bark beetle infestations: what’s wrong with this picture? Poor forest health. The sequence really begins with the U.S. Forest Service spending over half of its budget fighting catastrophic fires, which in turn leads to the unnaturally overgrown forests. With so much of its budget diverted to fire costs, recreation and proactive forest management suffer.
Rate of Beetle Infestation Slows, Healthy Acreage Dwindles
The recently released 2015 aerial survey of Colorado forests shows the spruce beetle continues to devour Colorado forests, although the rate of spread is slowing. The 2014 survey showed Spruce beetles infesting 253,000 new acres. The 2015 survey shows 182,000 new acres of beetle infestation. The rate of spread to new acres will come to an end once all of Colorado’s spruce forests have been killed.
Proactive forest management aimed at reducing overcrowding and restoring forest health will stem the tide of beetle infestations, mitigate the risk of stand replacing fires, and produce economic benefits. Unfortunately, Congress dropped a bipartisan forest management package from the fiscal 2016 Omnibus spending bill in December, so the struggle continues.
Fire Costs Burn Up US Forest Service Budget
The fight over fire borrowing and funding the U.S. Forest service will only become more difficult as forests grow more overcrowded, beetles kill trees, and climate change dries them out. As firefighting costs consume an ever larger portion of the Forest Service’s budget, the agency has reverted to deferring maintenance and reducing recreation amenities, such as reducing visitor information services, closing campsites, and decommissioning restrooms.
Proactive forest management would ease, and perhaps solve, the Forest Service’s budget woes. The USFS used to generate over a billion dollars annually, but over the past 30 years timber harvests have dropped 80 percent. Today the agency spends $2 for every $1 it earns. Molly Pitts, with Healthy Forests Healthy Communities, recently wrote in the Durango Herald, “The lack of management to remove excess growth is making our forests increasingly susceptible to catastrophic wildfires that threaten public safety, the economic livelihood of communities, water supply, and forest health.”
Positive Steps in Colorado
Western Colorado recently received some good news in the form of an environmental impact statement covering the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests which directs as many as 120,000 acres of the GMUG forests to be treated to limit the effects of the spruce beetle and aspen decline. The treatments include 50% commercial cutting and 50% non-commercial treatments, which means that there will be an increased source of logs for the Montrose Forest Products mill, pending a 45 day comment period.
At the local level, small, private landowners should seek assistance from the Colorado State Forest Service. Click here for more information.