Saving the Western United States From Pine Beetles

Co-authored by Helen Burdett.

The pine beetle is wreaking havoc across western forests, and congressional action is overdue. Over the past decade, upwards of four million acres in Colorado and Southern Wyoming have been transformed from a verdant, green, majestic landscape to one that is stained red with dead trees. Beetle-kill trees provide fuel for wildfires that threaten lives and livelihoods. This thought is even more alarming with recent fires in Boulder, Pueblo, Rocky Ford and Golden marking the beginning of fire season. Along with intense wildfires, Colorado and Wyoming see 100,000 trees falling every day Congress fails to act -- a rate of one million trees every ten days. These falling trees endanger hikers and campers, but there is a way to fight back.

Dead trees threaten roads, trails and power lines and contribute to the spread of wildfires onto private property. The most effective way to deal with this problem is to remove dead trees from high-risk areas and diversify forests. Thinner forests produce healthier, more vigorous trees that can better ward off beetle attacks. Removal of dead wood not only reduces the risk of falling timber and wildfires, but can also yield commercially viable wood for 3-5 years after infestation. Failure to respond to the pine beetle epidemic will unbalance ecosystems and threaten already endangered wildlife.

By clearing the dead trees from hazardous areas, we can save lives while helping the local forestry industry thrive. Reclaimed dead wood that can no longer be used for construction can still be used for biomass heat, an emission-free source of fuel that creates jobs and reduces the amount of fossil fuels we need to heat our homes.

"It's depressing when I go up to the mountains and see the devastation that the pine beetles have wreaked on our trees," says Katherine Duncan, rising law student and Colorado native. "I hope to someday be able to look up from my family's cabin in the mountains and see a pretty green forest again. For now I've realized that Congress needs to be doing what they can to protect hikers and campers and to keep the wildfires from burning down people's homes."

Pine beetles target trees that are weakened by current forest management conditions and climate-induced changes. Forests of old, densely packed pines allow beetle populations to expand beyond their natural habitat. Warmer summers and milder winters thwart nature's ability to contain the beetles. Failing to take action jeopardizes our ability to respond effectively if a fire does break out. As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Colorado Senator Mark Udall is in a position to make a difference.