Forest Service to Fast-Track Treatment of Beetle Kill

05/12/14 | By | More

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Forest Service is poised to begin using its new authority through the National Forest Insect and Disease Treatment Act to fast-track treatment of forests on public lands suffering from insect and disease epidemics.

The act was first introduced by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D–Colo.) in 2013 and signed into law as part of the Farm Bill last February. It creates a program to designate new national forest acreage for “expedited treatments” when beetle infestation threatens, by freeing up the agency from unwieldy environmental analysis  to pursue treatment options, while requiring more community collaboration from forest stakeholders.

The treatments will be carried out under the authorities provided in the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, now known as the Healthy Forest Initiative or HFI, which empowered the U.S. Forest Service to reduce the fuel loads that contribute to wildfires by thinning what it deems to be overstocked stands.

Bennet’s bill builds on HFI to identify treatment areas and provide more tools to combat threats to forests from insects and disease by declaring those areas to be “authorized hazardous fuel reduction projects”. The Agriculture Secretary, in consultation with state officials, is charged with designating at least one subwatershed on at least one national forest in each state that is experiencing certain thresholds of insect epidemics or disease that impairs forest health.

Areas treated through the pilot program will prioritize the preservation of old-growth and large trees, if possible, while still promoting forests that are resistant to insect and disease damage according to a release from Bennet’s office last week.

Opponents to the Healthy Forests Initiative have refered to it as the “No Tree left Behind” Act and have raised concern about the role of private logging companies in thinning stands and clearing fire-breaks.

However, Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus, a co-sponsor of Bennet’s bill, has openly embraced its benefits to the timber industry.

“Montana timber jobs rely on smart policies to address one of the worst bark beetle kills in the nation,” he said when the bill was first introduced a year ago. “This is a commonsense plan to give the Forest Service tools to improve forest health as we work on ways to prop up our loggers and small timber mills.”

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified last week before the Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee that he expects to identify areas to which he may be able to apply the expedited authority granted to his agency through the new bill by the end of May.

Tidwell said he has received recommendations from 36 governors, including Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, for areas that the USFS should prioritize under this expedited authority.

In 2012, over 15 million acres of forests across the nation were inventoried as having sustained damage from insects and diseases. In Colorado alone, over 800,000 acres were inventoried as damaged by the ongoing beetle epidemic. It is estimated that over the next 15 years, 58 million acres are at risk in the continental United States.

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