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As beetle invasion rages, a debate over logs

Home builders want the dead trees, but activists and regulations stand in the way.

By Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2009

Roger Johnson inspects trees killed by bark beetles.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff


Seeley Lake, Mont.

Tromping through a snowy thicket of lodgepole pine, forester Tim Love identifies the telltale signs that the trees are, in his words, “dead already but don’t know it.”

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He points to a trunk riddled with pitch-outs – ejections of sap sent out by the tree trying desperately to dislodge the bark beetles that are killing it. The branches are covered in rust-colored needles that have faded from their original healthy green as the beetle attack cuts off the tree’s food and water. These are the visible scars of massive beetle destruction that now stretches from Colorado to British Columbia.

Soon, wind will likely finish off the pockmarked lodgepoles, sending them crashing to the forest floor, says Mr. Love, a district ranger in the Lolo National Forest in Montana. That’s a fire hazard headache for the forest service – and, some say, a missed opportunity.

In the nearby Bitterroot Valley, a nationally renowned cluster of log-cabin builders ply their trade. Dead, standing lodgepole pines killed off by beetles make ideal logs for cabins. But instead of using the nearby trees to boost the economy and mitigate fire risks, these companies are hauling timber in from Canada instead.

The reasons why the dead trees remain untouched reveal how difficult it is for the US Forest Service to offer timber sales to loggers, say agency officials. Even seemingly straight-forward operations, such as allowing the helicopter-cutting of dead trees following a massive die-off, present difficulties due to bureaucracy and resistance from environmentalists who point out the value of such trees to wildlife.

“There’s an overabundance of [dead] material out there that could be removed and done in a very benign way,” says Love. “That’s hard to do because there’s a lot of people out there that challenge our decisions both with appeals and through litigation.”

An estimated 2.4 million acres across five northern US states show visible signs of trees killed by the beetles, according to data from Gregg DeNitto with the US Forest Service in Missoula.

The attack on a tree starts with adult female beetles, which bore through the bark and deposit eggs underneath. The hatched offspring feed on the tree’s food-bearing tissue. The beetles also introduce fungi that cut off the tree’s water supply. In roughly a year, the tree is dead.

The beetles are nothing new to the region, and every few decades their population explodes. This current outbreak is being fueled by drought conditions, the fact that earlier logging homogenized the age of the trees, and the lack of long winter cold spells that kill the beetles, says Mr. DeNitto.

“If it’s miles from occupied areas, we wouldn’t concern ourselves with it,” says DeNitto. “If we wait three years or longer, we’ll be paying for any [fire fuels reduction] treatment and we’ll have a cost to the taxpayers.”