If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? How about an entire forest?
Every spring and summer, the bark beetle epidemic in Colorado’s forests takes on added dimensions. Rather than the green and gold we’ve used as backdrops to family portraits and souvenir postcards, receding snows reveal new swaths of rust-red forest that have succumbed to bark beetles.
Colorado is ground zero for the bark beetle epidemic, which has left millions of acres of dead and dying trees across our state and the Mountain West.
The risk to our homes and families, critical infrastructure and watersheds, and tourism and recreational areas intensifies with each passing year as the epidemic turns the tree stands in our backyards into kindling. Throw into the mix too many warm winters and extremely dry vegetation and we have a pot waiting to boil over.
The potential disaster from wildfires fueled by dead trees makes this an emergency we can’t ignore. Even though the red flag for our homegrown disaster comes much quieter, the potential fallout from successively bad fires could be just as devastating to our communities as earthquakes or hurricanes have been elsewhere.
We’re four months into the year, and forestry experts already are saying the Colorado fire season is shaping up to be a record year, the worst since the season of the Hayman Fire in 2002. The front pages of our hometown newspapers have tracked more than 3,600 acres burning in one fire, 300 homes evacuated in another, and countless state and federal dollars poured into fighting numerous others across the state.
Anyone who has fought fires or done mitigation work can tell you that fires are fickle creatures, capable of flaring to outrageous proportions in one moment and dying in the next. All the money and resources we could throw at it wouldn’t guarantee future fires will be prevented, but we can find ways to reduce the devastation they wreak and protect our forests and state economy in the process.
I’ve been fighting for many years to make sure Washington, D.C., understands the serious threat and the need for resources and legislative change to deal with the damage from beetle-killed trees and the serious health and safety threats they pose to Coloradans.
At my urging, the U.S. Forest Service successfully reprogrammed $40 million in fiscal year 2010 to go toward beetle-killed forests, but those funds were just a drop in the bucket compared with the scale of the problem. That’s why last October I led a bipartisan group of Western senators in asking the administration to redirect an additional $49 million in unspent money to help address beetle-killed forests. Our request has, as yet, gone unfulfilled.
In March, I sent a letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell urging him to do a full accounting of available Forest Service funds for both fire suppression and those that may be reprogrammed for bark-beetle mitigation efforts. I’m hopeful that the U.S. Forest Service will act on my request and that others in Washington will heed the emergency in Western forests. My letter also generated more than 6,000 signatures of support from Coloradans who are understandably frustrated at the slow progress in addressing this crisis.
The ongoing budget showdowns we face in Congress today highlight the many difficult decisions we face about how to use federal resources — but I think that preventing a major wildfire because of beetle-killed trees is an urgent need. Beyond protecting our homes and watersheds, taking action now makes fiscal sense, because we know firsthand in Colorado that fighting a fire ultimately could be much more expensive than preventing one.
We can’t afford further delay. We are losing not just our picturesque mountainsides and forest ecosystems, but our Colorado way of life. We need action now, and I promise to continue working on legislation so that when a beetle-killed tree falls in Colorado, people in Washington hear — and act on — it.
Mark Udall is a Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado.