$40 million for beetle kill sparks climate-change debate that misses key point

Tuesday’s announcement by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the U.S. Forest Service is pumping $40 million more into coping with the ongoing pine bark beetle epidemic predictably stirred up the same old tired climate change debate.

The rice-sized beetles have killed more than 2 million acres of lodgepole pines across Colorado and southern Wyoming alone, and scientists say prolonged temperatures of 20 to 30 below zero – which Colorado has not seen for years — are needed to kill the larvae that burrow under the bark and turn the trees rust red before they die.

Climate change debunkers say relentless (and costly) fire suppression by the feds and environmental opposition to logging are key contributors to an aging and uniform forest more susceptible to such outbreaks, and they’re partially right. But clearly rising temperatures and ongoing drought are also contributing factors as well.

The question, however, isn’t how the outbreak happened, but rather, what to do about it now that it has irreversibly changed the face of our national forests across the West. Gov. Bill Ritter, on the conference call with Vilsack and reporters Tuesday, showed that he clearly gets it when it comes to beetle kill. Stopping the bug outbreak is impossible; dealing with its aftermath is imperative:

“The combined effects of massive bark beetle epidemics, the perennial risk of catastrophic wildfire, and a struggling forest industry have left forests throughout Colorado and other Western states at great risk,” Ritter said. “Our economy, communities, water supplies, property and citizens are threatened. Even in a tough economy like this, we cannot afford to ignore these challenges or these risks.”

If the money is used to treat dead forests around mountain and foothill communities, campgrounds, recreation areas, ski resorts, power lines and reservoirs; if it’s used to find innovative biofuel solutions to convert dead trees into heat and energy and thereby reduce carbon emissions; and if it’s used to put unemployed Coloradans back to work, then it’s money well spent.

If the feds fritter it away in endless bureaucratic wrangling, hand-wringing and studying of a problem even environmentalists agree needs to be dealt with proactively, then it will be just another bailout boondoggle.

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