Roads required for battling beetle kill epidemic, but is it worth it?

One of the biggest loopholes conservationists want closed in Colorado’s revised roadless rule released by the state Monday is an exception for logging roads up to 1.5 miles into the national forest around communities threatened by wildfire in the wake of a devastating beetle-kill epidemic.

Colorado Wild’s Ryan Bidwell told the Denver Post that exception opens up far too many acres of roadless public lands to logging.

“We agree that it makes sense to clear trees and brush around peoples’ homes, and the science is clear that cutting trees and brush immediately around homes, the first 200 feet, can be very effective. But we see no reason to allow logging a mile or even further away from communities,” Bidwell said.

The Vail Daily quoted Department of Natural Resources deputy director Mike King saying the exception is needed to mitigate wildfire danger on the rise because of a mountain pine bark beetle outbreak that began in the 1990s and has killed more than 1.5 million acres of Colorado’s national forests.

A recent University of Colorado study gives some credence to Bidwell’s contention that going deep into the forests isn’t necessarily going to reduce the wildfire danger, but Breckenridge recently repealed an ordinance requiring removal of potentially flammable vegetation around homes – buckling to homeowners who said it was too expensive.

In Vail, where the town, Eagle County and the U.S. Forest Service have been working for the past several years to create a defensible zone of a couple of hundred yards around the entire town, firefighters say it’s key to have a space in which to fight the inevitable fires before they move down into town.

Officials there are now working on getting federal funding for a biomass power plant that would generate hot water and electricity by gasifying chipped up beetle-kill trees. Any long-term stewardship contract with the Forest Service, which backs the plan, would likely envision being able to go a little deeper than 200 feet into the forest to provide a sustainable supply of fuel.

Surely there’s a happy median between 200 feet and 1.5 miles, because only the most fringe of environmentalists would actually like to see posh ski resorts like Vail and Aspen go up in flames.

Democratic state lawmakers Christine Scanlan and Dan Gibbs, both of badly infested Summit County, put out a release Tuesday touting state laws they helped pass last session that go into effect Wednesday and should make it easier for mountain towns to form action plans to deal with the epidemic from a wildfire protection standpoint.

“This is an aggressive step forward for Colorado,” said Rep. Scanlan. “It’s critical legislation, providing state entities, private landowners and local communities assistance in addressing wildfire threats using innovative strategies. This new law will facilitate market-based solutions to help Colorado effectively combat the bark beetle infestation.”

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