It's not a super-sexy issue that'll help his campaign for Wayne Allard's Senate seat, but U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, has taken the plight of Colorado counties affected by the pine beetle epidemic to Washington, D.C.
Udall has met with industry and community groups, and has pledged his support to Gov. Bill Ritter's Forest Health Advisory Council. He's introduced two related bills to the House of Representatives.
H.R. 3072, the Colorado Forest Management Improvement Act of 2007, reduces the risks to Colorado communities and water supplies from severe wildfires, and provides model legislation that could be applied to other states experiencing forest-related problems such as beetle infestations. Every member of Colorado's House delegation has signed on as a cosponsor.
H.R. 5216, the Wildfire Risk Reduction and Renewable Biomass Utilization Act, promotes the use of biomass removed from forests as a renewable energy source. That's Udall's bill alone.
The representative of CD2 recently answered questions about the epidemic and efforts to mitigate its effects. (Note: All spelling and grammar appears exactly as written in Udall's e-mail.)
Indy: Do you think Coloradans who might not live in the middle of a lodgepole forest understand the impact the beetle epidemic is having on their state?
Udall: Anyone who travels along I-70 and in other parts of the state sees this problem in the form of dead red trees, and knows that this is a serious problem. Clearly, those who live in the middle of this infestation understand this impact more directly.
Indy: Has it been difficult to convince Congress of the urgency of the epidemic?
Udall: Unfortunately, it has been difficult. Congress has been focused on a number of issues, including passing the budget bills to keep the government operating, as well as Iraq. I continue to do what I can to bring this issue to the forefront, including the introduction of additional bills to provide more help. We will continue as a Delegation to get these bills on the committee agenda.
Indy: How does this battle differ from other fights in the environmental arena and other environmental disasters such as drought?
Udall: In many ways, it is no different. When issues like drought and the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel issue arise, we elected officials respond by seeking funding, urging action by federal agencies, and responding to any legal obstacles. The difference with the bark beetle infestation is that this is a slow moving crisis that can result in natural or man-made disasters. I have been working on this issue since I was elected in 1998 and have collaborated with my colleagues across the isle to help address and respond to it. Some of that response is now in place, such as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, which I supported, that has been used to help thin the forests and reduce wildfire threats. As I said, I will keep sounding the alarm so that we can get some additional tools and resources in place.
Indy: Are you hopeful about the fight, and what do you think is the best approach? Using beetle-killed pines to build houses? Using the diseased wood to make cellulosic ethanol?
Udall: Yes, I am hopeful. This issue has helped many to realize that our forests are unhealthy and that we need to better manage them. That management should include new entrepreneurial approaches, such as finding ways to use the wood for beneficial uses like energy production. This can also help make the forests more healthy and resilient and better able to respond to an insect epidemic of this scale.
Indy: What's the best-case scenario for Colorado's forests? Worst-case?
Udall: The best-case scenario would be to ramp-up forest treatment projects to reduce fire threats around communities, smaller wildfires that are controlled due to the thinning treatments around communities, a revived timber industry that can find ways to use the removed trees, a strong revegetation program, and a continued tourist and recreational economy. The worst-case scenario would be to not treat our forests through selective cutting resulting in catastrophic wildfires that destroy homes threaten lives and create erosion damaging water supplies and the recreational tourist economy.
Indy: Has the beetle epidemic touched your own life? How?
Udall: Like many Coloradans, our magnificent mountain landscapes have helped shape who I am today. Because of this I have been working on forest health issues since I was first elected, but the beetle epidemic has ramped up those efforts. Every chance I get, I head up into Colorado's mountains, and I will continue to do so. The beetle epidemic is certainly changing the outdoor experience in Colorado, but I am committed to doing all that is possible to best preserve the forested mountains that make our state the wonderful place it is.
After the feast
The mountain pine beetle can't be stopped. So statewide efforts are focusing on how to handle its aftermath and how to create a forest that can withstand the insect's next attack.
"The beetle knows no boundaries," says Clint Kyhl, incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service pine beetle program. "So we have to work on a collaborative basis with everyone trying to solve the issue. This will effectively thin the forest and make room for the next, healthier forest."
First, though, the dead trees a fire risk will have come down. Then they'll have to be removed.
So, what to do with that wood? The Colorado Wood Utilization and Marketing Program at Colorado State University aims to support and expand Colorado's forest-based business sectors, including furniture and flooring companies, sawmills and others. Among the possible uses it lists for the diseased wood:
Wood pellets for pellet stoves. These are small electric stoves that burn sawdust that has been compressed into pellets. "We have seen three new pellet mills in recent years," Kyhl says, "and two are under construction now."
Blue stain lumber. This lumber gets its name from its bluish color that comes from blue stain fungi that the beetles carry. It can be used for house logs, utility poles, dimensional lumber, mine timbers, railroad ties, posts and poles, fencing, paneling and pallets; studies have shown it's just as strong as non-diseased lumber.
Blue stain lumber marketed as designer wood. A Granby company is sculpting the blue stain logs (calling it blue pine) into doors and moldings for log cabins.
Cellulosic ethanol. The U.S. Department of Energy announced in January that it will invest up to $114 million over four years in four biorefinery projects, including one in Commerce City. These refineries will use a wide variety of feedstocks, including wood harvested from the pine beetle kill.
Concrete. A research team at the University of Northern British Columbia has discovered that beetle-kill wood can be added to other ingredients to make concrete. The resulting concrete/plywood material can be cut with woodworking tools and is water-resistant, according to a UNBC press release.
Kyhl is encouraged by the state timber industry's response to the epidemic.
"If we have industry as a partner, we will have the funds to treat more acres," he says. "We can use the wood fiber for society's benefit and have more funding for treatment programs."
One note of concern comes from John Stansfield, a member of the Sierra Club and founder of the Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition:
"I hope they use existing roads for harvesting the dead trees. I would hate to see a whole new network of roads in Colorado to support the harvesting."