Don’t Blame the Beetles

At a Senate hearing yesterday Sen. Ken Salazar (R-CO) got tough with the Bush Administration about not spending enough money to deal with bark beetle-damaged forests on public land in Colorado to reduce wildfire risk.

But if people are really scared about wildfires burning their homes, going after those dead trees won’t help them, says The Wilderness Society..

According to the group, 78 percent of the communities in Colorado most threatened by wildfires are near private, not public land. It’s not sexy, but the best way to reduce danger in these places is to have better plans for fire reduction on private land. This means doing things like thinning trees around houses, widening access roads, making sure there’s an adequate water supply if fire threatens, and so on.“These plans are hard work,” says Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist for the group, “Congress tends to look for showier solutions.”

You can see it in the numbers. Less than 11 percent of the $14.24 billion Congress has appropriated to the National Fire Plan over the past five years has gone to programs dealing with fire on private land. Meanwhile, President George Bush’s proposed budget for 2007 includes deep cuts in these programs.

Thinning out lodgepole pines killed by pine beetles makes sense if the trees are near homes. But doing it in the deep forest may interfere with natural processes. The current pine beetle infestation is the expected result of events that happened 100 years ago, when Colorado’s forests were logged or burned intentionally. As a result, the trees in the forest are all around the same age, which makes them more susceptible to insect infestation.

According to Aplet, the best solution is to leave most of these dead trees be. “It’s understandable why people get upset when the forest turns brown. But it’s a natural process.”

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