Bark Beetle, Hazard Trees and Fuels- The Controversy That Isn’t?

It seems like everyone agrees that there are many dead trees out here in the Interior West. It seems like most folks think the ones along roads and trails should be cut so they don’t fall on people (although there are more out there than we are probably capable of getting) . Most folks agree that fire breaks around communities are a good idea to give firefighters a safe place to operate, among other reasons. Many people don’t want cutting in the backcountry, but I don’t think that anyone is proposing that.

Firebreaks around communities, roads and powerlines is about all people can get funding to do, if that. If climate change causes more outbreaks and more fires, we will be lucky just to keep up with powerlines, roads and communities.

See the below article here..

Udall, Bennet want Vilsack to treat beetle kill as ‘national emergency’ in wake of wildfires By David O. Williams 10/4/10 2:28 PM
Citing last month’s wildfires near Boulder and Loveland and the ongoing Church’s Park Fire in Grand County, U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are asking U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to treat the pine bark beetle epidemic as a national emergency.

The two Colorado Democrats in a release today said they are leading a bipartisan effort to get Vilsack to “rededicate” an additional $49 million in existing funds to help clear dead trees and perform other forest mitigation work to decrease the fire risk in the U.S. Forest Service Region 2, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska.

Last year Bennet and Udall got Vilsack to channel $40 million in existing funds into mitigation efforts in Region 2, of which $30 million is now being used to reduce fuel loads in Colorado’s White River, Medicine Bow/Routt and Arapaho/Roosevelt national forests.

In the wake of the costly Fourmile Canyon blaze west of Boulder last month, which consumed 166 homes, environmentalists and politicians – including Boulder’s mayor – pointed to climate change as a key contributor in the ongoing bark beetle epidemic that has killed more than 2 million acres of lodgepole pines in Colorado and Wyoming.

Scientists generally agree that warmer historical temperatures have contributed to the outbreak because there have not been enough prolonged cold snaps to kill beetle larvae during the winter months. But some studies suggest forests are not any more susceptible to wildfire because of the beetle kill outbreak and that resources for clearing trees too deep into the forest should be limited.

Still, firefighters generally agree that the huge fuel loads presented by massive swaths of dead forest make battling blazes in and around communities all the more problematic, and one of the greatest concerns is clearing dead trees away from the state’s hundreds of miles of power lines that criss-cross public lands.

I also thought this article was interesting and well written. Beetle-kill epidemic a boon for Wyoming’s timber industry?

Here’s some more quotes related to the “controversy.”

Beetle-killed forests are just as susceptible to fire as green forests, and there’s little proof of the widely held fear that fires in infested stands will burn so hot they’ll sterilize the soil, said Duane Short, an ecologist with the Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

Logging hasn’t stopped the spread of beetles, he said, and clearing dead timber hurts the long-term health of the forest.

“If you’re familiar with the curriculum of Forest Service schools, it’s about logging, and it’s about ways to log,” Short said. “It’s not about the natural ecology of forests. And so the folks that end up in these fields, they look for reasons to log, essentially.”

Forest officials dispute Short’s assertions.

“If we sat on our hands and did nothing, I think we’ll see some down the road, especially when we get downfall, we’ll see some large fires that are stand- or species-altering fires,” said Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser. “I also think we’ll see a less healthy forest in the interface.”

I sincerely hope Short’s comments about forestry education were taken out of context.. Anyway, what if we all agreed to take up the topic of the “fuels treatment in the backcountry” sometime later (when we are done with WUI, powerlines and roads) and just focus for the moment on moving forward on what we all agree on?

6 thoughts on “Bark Beetle, Hazard Trees and Fuels- The Controversy That Isn’t?”

  1. Excuse me if I don’t trust that the Forest Service “has everything under control”. Push might be coming to shove sooner than we think if politicans decide that public safety trumps “widely held eco-beliefs”. Personally, (and selfishly), I’m happy that this “national emergency” is happening in the Rockies, as it is going to take more destruction and human suffering to discount the “First Church of the Most Holy Gaia”. For politicians, even worse than voting against new Wilderness is voting against public safety, after a “national emergency”. It seems that the Boulder scenario wasn’t destructive enough to convince Congress, after all, most of Colorado is still “flyover country” to the powers that be.

  2. Duane Shorts comments appear to be more politics than science. I have seen dead lodge pole stands burnt to the point where almost everything was consumed; logs, stumps, roots, and duff. These areas definitely had severe soil damage. I have some photos I could post showing this, or maybe a guest post. If a dead lodge pole pine stand has some seedlings started underneath then the fire can wipe them out and remove the seed source, setting the forest back for decades. As far as a boon for logging, dead lodge pole pine doesn’t have a high value, and I suspect the logging is subsidized and done for other reasons than economics. House logs for log cabins are the most value, but most dead lodge pole trees won’t make house logs. I heat my house with dead lodge pole firewood, if it’s going to burn it might as well heat my house too.

  3. SNIPS:

    “Their preliminary analysis indicates that large fires do not appear to occur more often or with greater severity in forest tracts with beetle damage. In fact, in some cases, beetle-killed forest swaths may actually be less likely to burn. What they’re discovering is in line with previous research on the subject.”

    “Disturbances like insect outbreaks and fire are recognized to be integral to the health of the forests and it has taken ecologists most of this century to realize as much. Yet when these disturbances occur, our emotional psyche leads us to say the forests are ‘unhealthy.'”
    – Roy Renkin, Yellowstone National Park Vegetation Management Specialist

    “It’s easy to think, ‘It’s more damaged so more likely to burn.’ That’s why it’s important to ask questions and not take everything as gospel truth, but go out and see if what we think is happening in our mind is really happening on the ground.”
    -Phil Townsend, University of Wisconsin forest ecologist

    NASA Satellites Reveal Surprising Connection Between Beetle Attacks, Wildfire

    [A very educational 5 minute NASA Earth Science video is also available at the link above]

    If your summer travels have taken you across the Rocky Mountains, you’ve probably seen large swaths of reddish trees dotting otherwise green forests. While it may look like autumn has come early to the mountains, evergreen trees don’t change color with the seasons. The red trees are dying, the result of attacks by mountain pine beetles.

    Mountain pine beetles are native to western forests, and they have evolved with the trees they infest, such as lodgepole pine and whitebark pine trees. However, in the last decade, warmer temperatures have caused pine beetle numbers to skyrocket. Huge areas of red, dying forest now span from British Columbia through Colorado, and there’s no sign the outbreak is slowing in many areas.

    The affected regions are so large that NASA satellites, such as Landsat, can even detect areas of beetle-killed forest from space. Today, NASA has released a new video about how scientists can use Landsat satellite imagery to map these pine beetle outbreaks, and what impact the beetle damage might have on forest fire.

    As mountain pine beetles damage whole regions of Western forests, some worry that the dead trees left behind have created a tinderbox ready to burn. But do pine beetles really increase fire risk? In this short video, forest ecologist Phil Townsend uses Landsat data — and takes to the mountains near Yellowstone — to find out.

    [Click link for an educational video:

    As the dog days of summer hit full force, some say the pine beetles have transformed healthy forest into a dry tinderbox primed for wildfire.

    For Yellowstone National Park Vegetation Management Specialist Roy Renkin, those worries are nothing new. “I’ve heard [the tinderbox analogy] ever since I started my professional career in the forestry and fire management business 32 years ago,” he said. “But having the opportunity to observe such interaction over the years in regards to the Yellowstone natural fire program, I must admit that observations never quite met with the expectation.”

    The idea that beetle damaged trees increase fire risks seems a logical assumption – dead trees appear dry and flammable, whereas green foliage looks more moist and less likely to catch fire. But do pine beetles really increase the risk of fire in lodgepole pine forest? University of Wisconsin forest ecologists Monica Turner and Phil Townsend, in collaboration with Renkin, are studying the connection in the forests near Yellowstone National Park. Their work — and their surprising preliminary results — are the subject of the NASA video.

    First, the researchers used Landsat data to create maps of areas hardest hit by the recent beetle outbreak. The Landsat satellites capture imagery not just in the visible spectrum, but also in wavelengths invisible to the human eye. One such wavelength band combination includes the near infrared, a part of the spectrum in which healthy plants reflect a great deal of energy. By scanning the Landsat near infrared imagery, the team located areas of probable beetle damage.

    Next, they hiked into the areas to confirm that the majority of the affected trees were indeed killed by beetles rather than by other causes. Mountain pine beetles leave telltale signs of their presence, including “pitch tubes” — areas of hardened resin where trees attempt to defend themselves from the boring insects by flowing sticky pitch from the wounds. By scanning the trees for pitch tubes and looking for beetle “galleries” under the bark where the adult insect lays its eggs, the team was able to confirm that they were reading the satellite imagery correctly.

    Finally, the University of Wisconsin team compares maps of beetle-killed forest with maps of recent fires.

    “Of course, we can’t go out and actually set a fire in beetle damaged areas where we’ve got red, green or no needles,” Townsend said. “We just can’t do that, so we collect data on the ground, we collect data from satellites, and then we build models of how much fuel is there and how burnable it is.”

    Their preliminary analysis indicates that large fires do not appear to occur more often or with greater severity in forest tracts with beetle damage. In fact, in some cases, beetle-killed forest swaths may actually be less likely to burn. What they’re discovering is in line with previous research on the subject.

    The results may seem at first counterintuitive, but make sense when considered more carefully. First, while green needles on trees appear to be more lush and harder to burn, they contain high levels very flammable volatile oils. When the needles die, those flammable oils begin to break down. As a result, depending on the weather conditions, dead needles may not be more likely to catch and sustain a fire than live needles.

    Second, when beetles kill a lodgepole pine tree, the needles begin to fall off and decompose on the forest floor relatively quickly. In a sense, the beetles are thinning the forest, and the naked trees left behind are essentially akin to large fire logs. However, just as you can’t start a fire in a fireplace with just large logs and no kindling, wildfires are less likely to ignite and carry in a forest of dead tree trunks and low needle litter.

    Forest ecologists noted this same phenomenon after the massive Yellowstone wildfires in 1988. As large crown fires swept quickly through the forest, many trees were killed and their needles burned off, but the standing dead tree trunks remained. In the ensuing years, new wildfires have tended to slow and sometimes even burn out when they reach standing dead forest. There simply aren’t enough small fuels to propel the fire.

    For Townsend, the results are a further reminder that, in complex ecosystems like that in and around Yellowstone, things aren’t always as they appear at first blush.

    “I think it’s important for people not to assume that there are relationships for certain types of features on the landscape,” he says. “It’s easy to think, ‘It’s more damaged so more likely to burn.’ That’s why it’s important to ask questions and not take everything as gospel truth, but go out and see if what we think is happening in our mind is really happening on the ground.”

    While pine beetle attacks may not, in fact, increase fire risk in western forests, Townsend believes fire and beetles do share a connection — climate change.

    Cold winter nights have traditionally kept beetle numbers in check by killing off larvae as they overwinter in trees. In the last decade, winter nighttime temperatures have not dipped as low — an observation predicted by climate change models. More beetles are surviving to damage larger areas of forest.

    Fires, of course, are also affected by warmer temperatures. As temperatures warm and some areas become drier, many climate scientists predict fires to increase in number and size.

    Both hold the potential to significantly change Rocky mountain forests, but, as Townsend noted, both are also key to forest health.

    “Both fire and beetle damage are natural parts of system and have been since forests developed,” Townsend said. “What we have right now is a widespread attack that we haven’t seen before, but it is a natural part of the system.”

    Renkin agrees with the assessment. “Disturbances like insect outbreaks and fire are recognized to be integral to the health of the forests,” he said, “and it has taken ecologists most of this century to realize as much. Yet when these disturbances occur, our emotional psyche leads us to say the forests are ‘unhealthy.’ Bugs and fires are neither good nor bad, they just are.”

    The Rocky Mountain West has experienced relatively few large fires this year, but the fire season isn’t over yet. The end of the current pine beetle outbreak is likely even further away.

    As a result, future summer travelers are likely to see more of these two Rocky mountain natives — mountain pine beetles and fire.

    Landsat is a joint program of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

    The study is published in the September issue of the journal BioScience.

  4. These studies were meant to reduce the fears of forest residents and not to illuminate the multitude of dangers that will not go away by doing nothing. The studies only represent a small slice of western forests for only a small period of time, where fires have little human impacts, and forests have little economic value. Sure, let’s not log Yellowstone. I think we can all agree on that, Sharon. I’d even be willing to toss aside all the pure lodgepole stands, if that would accelerate the restoration work on mixed conifer forests that still can be saved, to some extent.

    Definitions are always a good place to start. “Backcountry” is often misused and abused to “preserve” logged-over areas. “Pristine” is a word in the dictionary that many activists and MSM writers need to re-visit. “Potential habitat” is a concept that will fall by the wayside when such “potential habitat” burns down, one would think.

    When we still have eco-groups litigating against public safety projects, what are we supposed to do? Close the roads?!? Chad Hanson’s decision was that if the road was designed for his Prius, then it deserves being made safe to the public. (Yes, this did come up in court!) One thing I would highly recommend is to seperate the roadside hazard projects from the salvage sales, in order to get that essential public safety work done quickly, with less controversy. I’d think that powerlines, canals and such already have authority to protect their investments. It shouldn’t take more than 2 hours to decide what to do with WUI, roads and powerlines. What if the road is within a major SMZ and all the trees are dead? What if it goes through an owl circle? I think the Forest Service has to side with public safety on all those points.

  5. The recent research from the University of Wisconsin that the AP carried to every newspaper in the West only looks at a small portion of the “does MPB epidemics increase fire hazard” debate. The press release states the scientists looked at “recent beetle outbreaks” and compared them to “recent fires”.In other words,it only looks at the “red needle” phase of the epidemic. Whats that, about five years? It doesn’t look at the MPB “deadfall” period of fire hazard which will last for the next 15-50 years. Because it fails to address the deadfall period, it totally fails as an argument for those who hold it up as proof that MPB doesn’t increase fire hazard.

    It’s too bad the AP headline didn’t say “scientists say MPB doesn’t increase fire hazard for the five years of the red needle phase”. Instead the headline reads “scintisits say MPB doesn’t increase fire hazard”. And who says the media’s duty is to inform the pubic to foster a free and democratic debate. Page and Jenkins published research in 2006 that seems to find a higher fire hazard. Lynch and others seems to have shown in 2006 that MPB deadfall contributed to Yellowstones fires. I don’t recall reading a headline about their research. I guess nobody called up the AP and said “hey, I’ve found research that proves the MPB increases fire hazard and that logging can mitigate the hazard”.I won’t hold my breath waiting for that headline. It’s fortunate that Colorado lawmakers are listening to wildland fire fighters and not the AP.

    The other night I was reading a USFS report published in 1982 about the then MPB epidemic in Montana. It mentioned that the famous 1962 “sleeping child fire” was fuelled by MPB deadfall from an epidemic 30 years previous. I’ve photographed the “clearcuts don’t burn” phenomenon on 7 Montana fires. I can honestly say that on 5 of those fires, I read either the INCIWEB reporting fire burning in “heavy surface fuels” or post fire salvage projects talking of fires burning through deadfall from the 80’s epidemic. I have nice pictures of the heavy surface fuels in unburned forests adjacent to the fires. It doesn’t take a forensic forester to know they were of MPB origin.

    Sharon is from Colorado. Sharon, can you think of one major fire that has burned in the lodgepole forests of Colorado in the last 50 years? How about 100? I can’t. Perhaps the reason is that 60% of Colorado burned in vast fires in the late 1800’s. Why did it burn then? It certainly couldn’t be global warming. What was different about then than now? Was it the last major MPB epidemic in Colorado that set the stage? Colorado’s forests of today are young. The forest in Yellowstone was old. How come there hasn’t been any “yellowstone” fires in Colorado. You’ve all walked through a young lodgepole stand(< 100 yrs.). The "legacy" surface fuels have long ago rotted away. So little sunlight reaches the ground the shade tolerants are suppressed, there is no grassy fuels,higher moisture. I'd say there are no surface fuels at all. There are no ladder fuels. Basic forestry 101.

    No, not all the MPB is gonna burn. Fire is still driven primarily by "fire weather". And that fire weather window is small. But I don't think it would be to hard for academia to overlay recent Montana fires over past MPB deadfall. The AP headlines are driven by unfounded environmentalist fears that it will be an excuse to "log it all". Maybe someone should tell them how little was actually logged. I doubt that will ever be an AP headline.

  6. Hello Derek, So you took a look at the entire study published in the September issue of BioScience? I mean, if you are going to rip apart the methods of this study, certainly you have taken the time to read the entire study, right?

    Here is some additional information regarding the two University of Wisconsin professors/researchers who conducted the study.

    Dr. Monica Turner is a UW professor of ecology who directs the Ecosystem and Landscape Ecology Lab at the University of Montana.

    Dr. Philip Townsend is forestry professor in UW’s Department of Forest Ecology and Management. His specialization is in remote sensing and forest ecology.

    In order to help us get to the bottom of this, I will be sending Derek’s comments and his allegations regarding the supposed methods of this bark beetle/wildfire research directly to Dr. Turner and Dr. Townsend at the University of Wisconsin. Maybe we’ll get to see what the actual researchers say regarding your allegations of their methods and scientific procedures. Thanks


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