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

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    Roger Johnson inspects trees killed by bark beetles.
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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.”

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.

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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.”

He notes that leaving dead trees does provide a habitat for forest animals – a point emphasized by Sara Johnson, who runs an environmental group called the Native Ecosystem Council. Among the animals using the dead trees: pine martins, snowshoe hares, forest owls, woodpeckers, chickadees, and voles.

“Beetles are just a natural part of the forest, and loggers and the Forest Service [are looking for] any excuse to log,” says Ms. Johnson. Her group has several active lawsuits aimed at halting logging on National Forest lands. “You have this huge ecosystem out there that evolves with the beetle. With logging, you not only take that away, they take the whole forest away.”

Such lawsuits are slowing the process of making parts of the forest available to loggers, says Love. A few decades ago the Seeley Lake ranger station averaged sales of 25 million board feet a year. Today the figure is closer to 4 million.

As a result, every one of Missoula County’s dozen sawmills have closed save one: Roger Johnson’s Pyramid Lumber. The beetle-killed lodgepoles make perfect cabin logs, Mr. Johnson says. But they can’t sit too long before other critters disfigure the wood: “The longer the tree stays dead out in the forest, the more degrade [in value] we have,” Johnson says.

Part of the delay includes inefficiencies in the environmental review process that’s required before holding a timber sale, says Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Sales now require lots of individual specialists to sign off on reviews, rather than relying on individual foresters who work more quickly.

Mr. Stahl recently sent a letter to President-elect Obama’s transition team making this point. In the letter, he asked, “How many [Forest Service] employees does it take to cut a small tree?”

An excerpt: “One to tell you no effect upon fish; one to tell you no effect upon historic artifacts; one to tell you no effect upon streams; one to tell you which small tree to cut; one to tell you how much the tree is worth.”

Spending so much time on reviews  make it difficult for timber sales to be profitable for the Forest Service, says Stahl, especially when fire fighting already makes up a large portion of the Forest Service budget.

Love says the specialization was developed due to the “lack of trust” in Forest Service decisions. Outside groups felt “we weren’t giving consideration to research values that we should have.” Neither Love nor Stahl disputes the need for an environmental review. But, says Love, “an appeal could cost you another year. If there are litigation and stays then there’s not any [timber] values left.”

This instability is why Steve Peckinpaugh, owner of Custom Log Homes, Inc., is hauling logs 1,200 miles from Canada. But getting logs locally would be cheaper, and greener, he argues.

If the logs were local, says Mr. Peckinpaugh, “We would be spending far fewer resources – fuel – to get the timber to the site.”

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