Bark Beetles Spark Western Fire Threat

Vast forest areas in the West are infested by bark beetles. Trees killed by the bug create a fire hazard. As Aspen Public Radio's Kirk Siegler reports, states want federal funds to clear out dead trees.


Out West, armies of small beetles have destroyed millions of trees and there's no sign that their march is slowing. The dead and dying trees left in their wake create the kind of fuel that can feed major wildfires. Mountain communities surrounded by damaged forests are at odds over how to ease the problem and who should pay for it. From Aspen Public Radio, Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER reporting:

Colorado's Summit County is home to some of the highest peaks and most popular ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains. These mountains have long been a draw for tourism and recreation. But there are signs this fragile ecosystem is in flux. Whole mountainsides that used to be lush with green lodge pole pine trees are today brown. The culprit? The tiny mountain pine beetle.

Ms. JAN BURKE (US Forestry Service): This tree has been hit by a mountain pine beetles. See these little-these little popcorn things coming out here? What happens is, the beetle bores in...

SIEGLER: Jan Burke has been tracking the rate of beetle kill in Colorado for the US Forest Service. Burke says the beetles are eating their way up to altitudes they never used to reach. Scientists blame this on the warmer and longer summers of late in the West due to climate change.

Ms. BURKE: What we're seeing is - is pretty unprecedented in - in most people's minds. It's - it's pretty amazing. When you get into an area where you have a view over, you know, square tens of miles and to look out and see that everything is brown is pretty stunning. It's pretty stunning.

SIEGLER: Thousands of visitors flock to resorts here like Breckenridge and Keystone each year. And many are staying on and buying or building second homes. This is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. And after seven years of drought it's also one of the driest. That's causing headaches for local officials like Gary Severson, who directs the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. The council logs the growth but also wants the forest service to deal with the dead trees and the fire risks they pose.

Mr. GARY SEVERSON (Northwest Colorado Council of Governments): Looking up on the hillside is something that definitely concerns them, but looking at their-looking at their subdivisions concerns them even more.

SIEGLER: Using provisions in the president's Healthy Forests Restoration Act the agency plans to log thousands of acres of beetle-killed trees. They'll also thin trees in dead and dying forests near vacation homes and resort towns. But some here are questioning whether taxpayer dollars should be spent to tackle the problem where people are knowingly building in fire-prone areas. Indeed, local governments haven't put many restrictions on building in these forests.

Sloan Shoemaker of Colorado's Wilderness Workshop says responsibility should lie squarely with the home owners.

Mr. SLOAN SHOEMAKER (Wilderness Workshop): The analogy in my mind is people building structures on what are essentially sand bars on the Barrier Islands and on the eastern coast that get hit by a hurricane every 25 years. Why should I, living in Colorado, subsidize the protection of those homes when these people are making a choice and living with that risk?

SIEGLER: Shoemaker predicts logging will damage soils and root systems and ultimately impair the forest's ability to resist the impacts of climate change. Back in a forest beneath the Breckenridge Ski Resort, those criticisms aren't lost on White River National Forest deputy supervisor Don Carroll. But Carroll says his agency is being pragmatic and prioritizing the best way to spend the public's money. He says that's why officials are choosing forests nearest structures to compliment efforts already underway way by private landowners and local governments.

Still, however much logging or other treatment occurs, the problem is too big to be solved entirely.

Mr. DON CARROLL (Deputy Supervisor, White River National Forest): So people can expect to see the forested landscape changing as - through, through the years and as they travel through the West on vacation or they enjoy the mountains around their communities. They're going to see this forest changing. And there's really nothing we can do about that.

SIEGLER: And because the forests are changing western communities like Summit County will continue to face the risks posed by wildfire and the possible economic loss from tourism if their mountains are full of dead trees. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Aspen.

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