Beetles Threaten Idaho Economy,
by Staff and Wire Reports
WASHINGTON - A freshman Idaho congressman who formerly ran forest-products businesses says bark beetles are also raising the risk of intense forest fires.
Rep. Walt Minnick spoke this week at a House committee hearing that focused on the mountain bark beetle's threat to Western forests. He told of a backpacking trip four summers ago in the Seven Devils Wilderness near Hells Canyon where every tree he inspected was dead or dying from beetle infestations encouraged by drought and warm winters.
"The epidemic threatens to impact Idaho's vital watersheds, key wildlife habitats, destroy old-growth forests and impact popular recreation areas," he said. "Whole mountainsides that used to be full of lush trees have turned brown - and ready to burn."
Water supplies for 33 million people could be endangered if millions of acres of beetle-ravaged forests in the Rocky Mountains catch fire, a U.S. Forest Service official told the committee.
Rick Cables, the chief forester for the Rocky Mountain region, said wildfires can "literally bake the soil," leaving behind a water-repellent surface that sheds rain and leads to severe erosion and debris, he said. The loss of so many trees also will reduce shade in the region, which in turn could reduce water supplies in the hot, dry summer months and accelerate snowmelt in the spring, he said.
While bark beetle outbreaks are naturally recurring events in the West, the current outbreak - which has killed nearly 8 million acres of trees - is the biggest in recorded history, Barbara Bentz, a research entomologist with the Forest Service, told the committee.
Besides Idaho, other hard-hit states include Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and eastern Washington. In Canada, more than 22 million acres have been affected and scientists suspect that the death of so many trees is altering local weather patterns and air quality.
"Healthier ecosystems provide economic and social benefits to both urban and rural communities, including better hunting, increased jobs in the woods, more logs for sawmills, forest residue for green-energy co-generation plants, clean water and improved wildlife habitat," Minnick said.
Officials from affected states who testified said they need help to avoid a potential catastrophe. Local officials said they want more money to clear trees from buildings, transmissions lines and other facilities. They also are seeking government help for companies trying to turn dead trees into wood products, especially pellets that can be burned to produce energy.
Of the $1.5 billion the Forest Service received in economic stimulus funds, about $26 million has so far been directed to the Rocky Mountain region to deal with beetle-related problems, chief forester Cables said.
Cables said that a year ago he also requested $213 million in emergency aid over three years to deal with safety threats. He said about $20 million has been received so far.
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