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Pine beetles stir logging debate

Casper Star-Tribune environment reporter
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

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LANDER -- The U.S. Forest Service's plan for targeted logging in the Medicine Bow National Forest is a knee-jerk reaction which will do nothing to stop the spread of pine beetles, a Laramie-based conservation group says.

But a timber industry spokesman said logging should be part of a long-term strategy to improve forest health.

Duane Short of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance said his organization takes issue with assertions made by the U.S. Forest Service that the scale of the current beetle epidemic is a historic, first-time phenomenon. Rick Cables, the regional forester for the Rocky Mountain region, said last month, for example, that the ongoing epidemic is an "unprecedented event."

"I would like the public to know that that's really not true," Short said. "It is unprecedented in terms of Forest Service experience, but in natural history this is a cyclical event, and every few hundred years these major epidemics occur, and the forests always recover."

Agency officials said last week that pine beetles have infested all of Wyoming's forests, and most of the state's mature lodgepole pines could be dead within five years. The problem is particularly acute in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming.

Short said a proposed timber harvest in the Spruce Gulch area near Fox Park and Wyocolo in the Med-Bow includes some clear-cutting and creating a half-mile buffer around some private property. A buffer of 300 feet provides adequate protection for properly constructed buildings; a half-mile is nothing more than overkill, Short said.

"Without trying to second guess their motives, it would appear they're trying to assure the public that they are doing something about an epidemic that nothing can be done about," Short said. "We're not opposed to reasonable measures to protect private property that is surrounded by or borders the forest. But that does not include these kinds of clear-cutting, some as much as five miles away from the nearest property."

The Forest Service's targeted logging will disturb the soil and take more habitat away from interior forest species such as the American marten and the Northern goshawk, both of which need mature forest to survive, he said.

But Aaron Everett, a spokesman for the timber industry's Intermountain Forest Association, said targeted logging would create more variety in the ages and types of trees present in Wyoming's forests. Mountain pine beetles infest mature lodgepole pines, but leave younger trees alone.

Currently, because of fire suppression and other factors, much of Wyoming's forests are the same age, Everett said. If the forest had a greater range of ages, a cataclysmic outbreak like Wyoming is now witnessing wouldn't occur.

"We have to have some diversity in our forests to guard against something catastrophic like this," Everett said. "It's incumbent upon the Forest Service to diversify the forest out there, and right now we have to be in the next stages of planning what the next forest is going to look like."

If all the lodgepoles die at once, and come back the same age, the state's forests are going to be in the same, undiversified situation down the road, Everett said.

"We have choices to make about the future of the forest," he said. "And I think that leaving it to the bugs is a bad option."

Daniel Tinker, a forest and fire ecologist at the University of Wyoming, said any attempt to "create" a more resilient forest through logging would likely be impossible, and attempting it would probably do more harm than good.

Beetle outbreaks are natural events that occur periodically, Tinker said. And although the Rocky Mountains are currently seeing an especially intense outbreak, it is nonetheless part of a normal, dynamic forest system.

"The forest will definitely recover," Tinker said. "Mountain pine beetles are native to these ecosystems. They're present all the time. This is a natural process that's being exacerbated by a drought period, but beetle outbreaks happen all the time."

As for Short's contention that major, catastrophic epidemics occur every few hundred years, Tinker said it's hard to collect evidence to support that, because unlike forest fires, beetle outbreaks don't leave easily identifiable clues. With that caveat, he said, many scientists do believe these outbreaks are cyclical.

"It's likely that outbreaks of this magnitude have happened in the past, but there is a lack of hard evidence," Tinker said. "In recent history, we haven't seen anything of this magnitude in the last several decades. But the forest will recover. It won't look like it does today, but 50 or 100 years from now, it probably will again."

Environment reporter Chris Merrill can be reached at chris.merrill@trib.com or at (307) 267-6722.