Bark beetle takes a bite out of Wyoming forests
Cheyenne— The devastating impacts of the bark beetle was a primary discussion topic during the House Ag Committee Hearing in early May.
Representative Cynthia Lummis explained the bark beetle has taken a toll on about 17 million acres of forest in regions one, two and four within the state.
“The magnitude of the problem is really difficult to grasp without seeing it. Forest health is critical to Wyoming’s health and economy, and so is the health of Wyoming’s vast ranges and open spaces; particularly watershed. In our semi-arid state the health of the land is synonymous with the health of state,” commented Lummis.
State Forester Bill Crapser explained that Wyoming has approximately 11.5 million acres of forest. Of those acres about nine million are in federal ownership and about 2.5 million are in private, tribal or state ownership.
“Wyoming forests are facing health issues that are probably unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing with the bark beetle across the state,” adds Crapser.
“In the last couple years this beetle has exploded. There are 3.6 million acres of dead forest in the Medicine Bow Forest and National Forest in Colorado. That’s an area the size of Connecticut,” adds Regional Forester for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service Rick Cables.
In addition to dying trees, Cable says another emerging issue is falling trees.
“On average we’re going to see 100,000 trees fall per day for 10 years over this 3.6 million acres unless we have a wind event that causes them to fall early,” says Cable.
Falling trees threaten infrastructure and require an increased labor force to keep trails open and remove trees from recreational sites.
“We’ve got over 550 miles of power lines within this area. One tree on a power line and you’re out of power. So you can imagine, as you look at those corridors, how much cutting back adjacent to the infrastructure we need to do to protect the power source. Another 211,000 acres adjacent to communities need to be treated to protect them from fire.
“The threat of wildfire, both in the urban interface and outside the interface, is on the great increase. The occurrence of fire and the number of acres burned has almost quadrupled over the last 10 years,” notes Crapser.
“There are 3,700 miles of road in this part of the country. We’ve treated about 500 miles, which leaves 3,200 miles to go. It’s becoming very labor intensive to keep trails open and we’ve had to remove every tree surrounding some recreational sites,” adds Cable.
Crapser includes the lack of a viable forest products industry as another growing concern. Noting that seven years ago there were seven large or fairly large sawmills in the state and today there is one in operation.
But of all the issues, both men list the impacts on watershed at the top.
“This area contains the Colorado River Basin, the Rio Grande River Basin, Arkansas River and Platte River. There are 177 counties that depend on water from this watershed and 13 downstream states in addition to a large agriculture interest. The condition of this watershed isn’t very good right now due to the mortality of the trees and the falling trees,” comments Cable.
“There’s an old saying in Wyoming that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. That gives you an indication of how important water is to our farmers and ranchers,” adds Lummis.
“Water quality and quantity are important issues both in our state and this part of the country. Habitat is under pressure and we’re seeing more and more fragmented land ownership, which also has an impact. A lot of ranchers and farmers can’t afford to stay in the business anymore for various reasons and they are dividing up their lands. Our ability to manage those fragmented lands is becoming more and more complicated that continues to be an issue,” adds Crapser.
A key element of the 2008 Farm Bill was a state directive to develop a statewide forest resource assessment and strategies to address any issues raised in the assessment. Crapser says that Wyoming has already completed the task and to the best of his understand is the first state to do so.
“I’m proud of my crew for that. We took an all-lands approach to forestry in the assessment and achieved special analysis using 14 key data layers that were identified by agencies, special interest groups and individuals. These include everything from development risk, wildfire risk, insects, disease and aquatic habitat, to green infrastructure.
“What we hope to do with these documents is help focus our efforts and help focus the Forest Services’ efforts and develop projects that will deliver maximum return on our investment. We believe the partnership between the state and federal agencies and the forestry service aspects of the Farm Bill will all contribute to this success,” says Crapser.
Cables notes that last year Secretary Vilsack delegated or dedicated over 40 million to be spent on the forest health issue, which everyone really appreciated.
“It’s a daunting challenge. There is a lot of work to be done, but there are a lot of opportunities as well in terms of jobs, sustaining supplies of wood and biomass and the research associated with it,” he explains.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com