As beetle invasion rages, a debate over logs
Home builders want the dead trees, but activists and regulations stand in the way.
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, â€śdead already but donâ€™t know it.â€ť
He points to a trunk riddled with pitch-outs â€“ 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 treeâ€™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. Thatâ€™s a fire hazard headache for the forest service â€“ 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.
â€śThereâ€™s an overabundance of [dead] material out there that could be removed and done in a very benign way,â€ť says Love. â€śThatâ€™s hard to do because thereâ€™s a lot of people out there that challenge our decisions both with appeals and through litigation.â€ť
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 treeâ€™s food-bearing tissue. The beetles also introduce fungi that cut off the treeâ€™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.
â€śIf itâ€™s miles from occupied areas, we wouldnâ€™t concern ourselves with it,â€ť says DeNitto. â€śIf we wait three years or longer, weâ€™ll be paying for any [fire fuels reduction] treatment and weâ€™ll have a cost to the taxpayers.â€ť
He notes that leaving dead trees does provide a habitat for forest animals â€“ 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.
â€śBeetles are just a natural part of the forest, and loggers and the Forest Service [are looking for] any excuse to log,â€ť says Ms. Johnson. Her group has several active lawsuits aimed at halting logging on National Forest lands. â€śYou 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.â€ť
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 Countyâ€™s dozen sawmills have closed save one: Roger Johnsonâ€™s Pyramid Lumber. The beetle-killed lodgepoles make perfect cabin logs, Mr. Johnson says. But they canâ€™t sit too long before other critters disfigure the wood: â€śThe longer the tree stays dead out in the forest, the more degrade [in value] we have,â€ť Johnson says.
Part of the delay includes inefficiencies in the environmental review process thatâ€™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 Obamaâ€™s transition team making this point. In the letter, he asked, â€śHow many [Forest Service] employees does it take to cut a small tree?â€ť
An excerpt: â€śOne 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.â€ť
Spending so much time on reviewsÂ 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 â€ślack of trustâ€ť in Forest Service decisions. Outside groups felt â€śwe werenâ€™t giving consideration to research values that we should have.â€ť Neither Love nor Stahl disputes the need for an environmental review. But, says Love, â€śan appeal could cost you another year. If there are litigation and stays then thereâ€™s not any [timber] values left.â€ť
If the logs were local, says Mr. Peckinpaugh, â€śWe would be spending far fewer resources â€“ fuel â€“ to get the timber to the site.â€ť