Writers on the Range: A forest management structure that can't cope

When my East Coast-based parents came to Breckenridge, Colo., for our family vacation in June this year, my dad couldn't stop exclaiming over the dead trees. Scores of rust-colored lodgepole pines, killed by the bark beetle epidemic, lined pretty much every road we drove down or bike path we pedaled on.

My father, who attended college on a scholarship for pulp and paper mill technology, wondered why the trees weren't being logged and used. One answer is that most of Colorado's lumber mills have been shut down for a long time. But the inability to deal with dead trees is just one in a line of management obstacles facing agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, as it struggles to cope with forest management in this age of disturbance.

A recent report issued by the Forest Service on its response to the bark-beetle outbreak in Colorado and southern Wyoming points to deeper problems than a paucity of sawmills. Land managers were slow to respond to beetle kill partly because the agency lacked funding to deal with the epidemic when it really took hold in the 1990s, say the report's authors. Add that to a “lack of public acceptance” of the large-scale logging that managers employ to make forests more diverse and resilient, and you get the perfect setup for the sudden, massive beetle kills that continue to shock locals as well as visitors.