Time for a new look at the pine beetle

Jun 12, 2009

WASHINGTON – In advance of a June 16 congressional hearing on the Western US pine beetle outbreak, representatives of the scientific, conservation and government fields said it’s time to take stock of how the federal government and local communities respond. Communities, they argued, are well served by developing strategies for coping with inevitable disturbances.

“Once an outbreak gets going, there are no known treatments that can influence its spread,” said Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist with The Wilderness Society. Kicking off an hour-long conversation with reporters, he explained that the beetle problem is not an ecological disaster as it’s often portrayed. Instead, the panelist pointed to socio-economic impacts of the beetle threat.

Gary Severson, the Executive Director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, said communities are now more concerned with directing limited resources on protecting consensus priorities from beetle impacts.

“We quit looking at how to stop the beetle years ago,” said the Council’s Gary Severson. Now, he said, governments across Colorado are examining “how we can act on the ground that will protect human life, protect public infrastructure and protect critical water supplies.”

Sloan Shoemaker, the executive director of Carbondale, Colorado-based Wilderness Workshop, agreed.

“The time of trying to engineer forests to adapt to our human footprint is behind us,” he said. “We now recognize the better course is to adapt our mountain communities to sustain themselves in the middle of disturbance dependent landscapes.”

Central to this is the federal government working in partnership with local communities – leveraging federal investment with local know-how to protect people, property and natural resources alike.

“The federal government is a partner and, frankly, has access to resources on a scale no one else has,” Shoemaker said.

The panelists offered a short list of roles Congress and the Administration can play:

  • A bill being drafted by Colorado’s congressional delegation that would help local communities respond to a wide variety of forest health challenges including insect outbreaks. The bill, which could be introduced this year, would provide funding incentives that lead to more federal-local partnerships.
  • Passing a stand-alone funding source for wildfire suppression such as The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act (FLAME). The intent of this legislation which already passed the U.S. House is to provide adequate funding for suppression so that federal agencies don’t have to keep taking money away from other vital programs and services. “Fire costs are like a giant Pac Man eating other little budgets,” Severson said – referring to items such as wildlife, recreation, campground and trail maintenance, etc.
  • Expanding funding for state and private forestry programs.

Closer to home, Severson and Shoemaker said local communities working together are critical to long-term success, working collaboratively to define solutions ranging from new building ordinances to new community risk planning.

Aplet summed up the panel’s view succinctly. “We need to make our communities more resilient so that inevitable forest disturbances have a smaller impact,” he said.

Listen to the full panel discussion.