Bark beetle cooperative discusses future community protection efforts
For years, the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative brought together folks who have historically sued one another.
Environmental activists, the timber industry, recreation-based businesses, utility providers, government representatives and nonprofits in 10 Western Slope counties met to discuss where they agreed and how they could collectively address the impacts of the pine beetle epidemic.
Hearing tree huggers say the same things as tree cutters impressed legislators in Washington, D.C., and the group succeeded in bringing home federal dollars for projects big and small that would chop beetle-kill trees.
Once the beetle crisis subsided, however, the group’s members briefly considered disbanding before deciding the relationships they formed have too much potential for good.
But where do they go from here?
The cooperative met on Friday, Oct. 24, at The Village at Breckenridge to discuss how to keep protecting human lives, property and infrastructure in the face of ongoing forest disturbances, including insects, fire and drought.
“Do we have an obligation to influence future forests?” said Sloan Shoemaker, the group’s chairman.
Beetle-kill trees wouldn’t be a problem if humans didn’t live and play in the region’s 4.5 million acres of forests, he said, where there are pockets in which 30 to 80 percent of trees have died.
White River National Forest silviculturalist and timber program manager Jan Burke summed up the dominant sentiment of the group when she said, “I think we have a responsibility, to a certain extent, to build our nests appropriately and to tend them.”
“We don’t want to be the generation that sat around and did nothing,” said Sloan, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop.
On Friday, the nonprofit collaborative, which has annual budget of about $5,000, focused on how its members can better collaborate to pinpoint which forest risks they want to address.
The group discussed what has worked in some communities — with Summit County held up as a model of success — how those efforts might be replicated elsewhere and how to better involve the timber industry.
COMMUNITY VALUES AND HAZARDS
A bathtub is a hazard, but it doesn’t become a risk until you step in it.
Tony Cheng, an associate professor of forest policy at Colorado State University and director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, explained that forest hazards work the same way.
Dead trees don’t become risks until people walk under one that could fall on them or unless people live next to where they could burn.
Because the chances of bad things like wildfire happening due to the beetle epidemic and other forest disturbances “are really really really really low,” Cheng said, community leaders must make decisions based on location and time frame.
He suggested the collaborative remember the assets it wants to protect — human lives, property, water supplies, power lines, roads, trails, ski resorts, wildlife habitat, beautiful landscapes — to prioritize addressing the risk of falling trees and wildfire damage.
Josh Ruschhaupt, director of the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter, asked if the group was also considering the ecological benefits of those natural events.
He seemed worried the hazard label grants the authority to cut trees where no threat to human communities exists.
Cheng responded that efforts so far have been limited to places where the cooperative agrees tree cutting is beneficial, like around campsites and ski areas. Beyond that, the group hasn’t reached consensus on what is feasible or even necessary.
“Those are things that we’re still kinda kicking around and grappling with,” he said.
For that reason, Cheng suggested the group map out potential projects relative to identified assets.
Later in the meeting, forest hydrologist and the collaborative’s vice chairman Brad Piehl returned to the danger of classifying natural forest events as hazards.
“It’s kind of fear mongering really,” he said. “Our forests have evolved with disturbances, and we need to get used to them because we have these events relatively frequently, especially in Colorado.”
WHO’S AT THE TABLE
People will always disagree about which hazards are most important and how best to lessen the risk, Burke told the group.
“There’s a cadre that wants to let anything go as long as it’s natural,” she said, adding that others say, “If it’s dead it’s no good, and we have to get it out of there.”
She’s been working on beetle issues since the early ’90s and is of the opinion that forest managers should do something now so communities aren’t still talking about beetle-related problems in another 20 years.
The Forest Service and partners responded to the most recent epidemic by triaging important sites. She said they cut trees along 3,700 miles of roads in three national forests as well as around 420 recreation areas. When federal funding dried up a few years ago, partnerships with electricity and water providers and CDOT helped those efforts.
Part of the mitigation included planting 100,000 seedlings every year for the last six years, she said, in hopes of providing more species diversity so forests dominated by lodgepole pine aren’t decimated by beetles 200 years from now.
While the tree planting earns wide public support, the tree cutting isn’t always appreciated by some locals who feel left out of the decision-making process.
For decades, government agencies used the “declare and defend” model, Cheng said. Only in recent years have they valued including all stakeholders and achieving public buy-in before decisions are finalized.
“As an agency we are more and more committed to the concept of collaboration,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor.
This year Congress gave some national forests, including the White River, the authority to bypass comprehensive environmental analyses for tree-cutting and management projects up to 3,000 acres in size as long the Forest Service collaborates with a broad group of stakeholders beforehand.
“We get ourselves in trouble when we ignore the social aspect of managing lands,” said Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service.
Lester talked about educating the public on the importance of Colorado’s trees as a vital part of the ecosystem that supplies water to people in 19 states and supports a state economy based on its multi-billion-dollar tourism industry
Forests answer an amazing amount of society’s problems, like cleaning water and air polluted by humans, for example, he said. “There’s nothing that does that as well as our forests do.”
Few legislators are associated more with efforts to combat the bark beetle epidemic than Dan Gibbs.
As a state representative Gibbs brought the issue to the Capitol figuratively and literally, in the form of a beetle-infested log.
Now as a Summit County commissioner, he explained to the collaborative how the county’s efforts exemplify the group’s goals and accomplishments.
Though the county struggles to engage property owners because most residences are second homes, Summit voters passed a tax increase a few years ago to support wildfire mitigation.
Gibbs spoke about the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, a guiding document updated annually by the county’s wildfire council, as well as changes to town and county building codes that require homes to use fire-resistant materials.
The county has encouraged subdivisions to form HOAs, which can require homeowners to create defensible space, and now the county has 10 Firewise Communities, more than any other county in the state.
Summit County extension agent Dan Schroder highlighted the county’s new chipping service, which was piloted this summer with higher than expected homeowner participation.
Collected slash was turned into nearly 800 tons of chips and sent to the Gypsum biomass plant to be burned to create electricity.
The collaborative’s members praised Summit’s efforts and talked about how other communities could copy the county, though some said that would be difficult in less affluent towns and counties.
Gibbs said all the work done in Summit to reduce wildfire risk still hasn’t solved problems for people charged high property insurance rates or unable to obtain home insurance for living too close to the forest.
THE ROLE OF INDUSTRY
When the housing market crashed, the Forest Service saw a drop-off in demand for the timber the agency has always sold, coupled with an increase in supply because agencies wanted to remove beetle-kill.
“We had a basket of wood and nowhere to take it,” said Mike Eckoff, with the Colorado State Forest Service. “Fast-forward five years, and everyone wants our wood for different reasons.”
That has allowed the Forest Service to decrease the amount of money it pays loggers to remove wood, essentially a subsidy for the timber industry.
Still the cost of buying the wood is too high for Colorado’s mills to operate with double shifts, which Rob Davis, owner and president of Forest Energy Corp., said is necessary for the mills to turn a profit.
A Bureau of Land Management representative said his agency is open to talking more with industry about how to make business more feasible.
“We’re all better off if we can figure out ways for people to make a buck out there,” said Greg Shoop, BLM associate state director.
The Forest Service wants to see the industry become strong enough to pay the agency for timber from public lands, instead of the other way around, Lester said. Plus the agency needs the industry’s help to manage lands through logging.
“Without a healthy forest industry there’s not enough money in the federal budget to do that,” he said.
Davis said he would like industry to be more involved once the Forest Service and other partners have decided where to cut.
“At times people look at industry as just a footnote to managing forests and forest restoration,” he said. “Our voice should be heard and that input is valuable.”
He said the businesses could help prioritize which projects make the most economical sense to log first.
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